Heels: A New Account of the Double Helix

October 26, 2021   •   By Nathaniel Comfort

The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix

Howard Markel

“WE HAVE FOUND the secret of life!” Francis Crick’s exclamation may be the best-known Eureka! moment in modern science. On February 28, 1953, Crick’s partner James Watson tells us in The Double Helix (1968), “Francis winged into the Eagle,” their Cambridge University lunchtime spot, and announced to all within earshot that they had solved the structure of DNA — the double helix. Crick’s words have become iconic. The Eagle has embedded the line in its very bricks and mortar. It can be found in books of history, science, philosophy, new-age self-help, business self-help, nutritional self-help, religion and spirituality, addiction memoirs, and in books for children. The event is common knowledge.

But if science teaches us anything, it is that common knowledge is neither. Crick went to his grave denying that he said it. And in 2016, at a symposium honoring the centennial of Crick’s birth, Watson admitted that he made it up. (The historian Matthew Cobb was there and wrote about it.) Indeed, it is Watson’s phrase, not Crick’s. Beginning with The Double Helix, Watson spent the rest of his career both promoting and staking claim to DNA. His other books include A Passion for DNA, DNA: The Story of the Genetic Revolution, and DNA: The Secret of Life.

The fact that The Secret of Life, a new accounting of the double helix tale by the historian of medicine Howard Markel, uses Watson’s fictional quotation for a title captures the book’s strangeness, the wobble in its gyroscope. Markel knows the scene is invented, yet he gives the line pride of place. Compiling prior accounts, archival sources, and interviews, Markel seeks to weave into the master narrative the ways that the tweedy, smoke-filled male world of 1950s British science shaped one of the most important discoveries in biology. There is no question that this needs to be done. Social networks certainly played a role in the double helix. Watson, who arrived in Cambridge an eccentric 23-year-old from the Midwest, fell in love with Cantabrigian intellectual life and the British aristocracy. He ingratiated himself into the top levels of the old boys’ network, cannily using it to learn what he thought of as the “secret of the gene.” An even-handed, dispassionate excavation of how the networks operated would be an important contribution to the history of biology.

But Markel makes a more radical argument. Watson, he maintains, was the ringleader in a vast male conspiracy against Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant crystallographer whose data, unbeknownst to her, were crucial to the solving of the structure. Essentially all of the men around her, Markel argues, colluded to short-circuit her career, drive her out of the double helix race, and deny her credit for the discovery. Markel’s argument fails for a peculiar reason: not because he misstates Franklin’s treatment (although at times he does), but because for all his gallantry, Franklin remains overshadowed. The world he creates on the page is just as simplistic and male-dominated as the one he seeks to replace.

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Crick’s classic ejaculation is only the most spectacular of many moments of fictionalization, exaggeration, compression, spoof, satire, and farce in The Double Helix. Though historians, journalists, and others have treated Watson’s book as straight memoir, the book is an enigmatic hybrid of fact and fiction. Its genius lies partly in Watson’s recognition of the novelistic quality of the historical events. Its greatest fault is that the naïve reader cannot tell what is true from what is not. Why didn’t Watson at least call The Double Helix “historical fiction”? Because he wanted it both ways: he wanted credit for writing the first account of the discovery, and he wanted to try his hand at writing a work of “great literature,” as both he and his editor put it at the time.

Watson turned the book’s characters — his friends and close colleagues — into caricatures without being explicit about it. His portrayal of Crick, wrote Richard Lewontin in 1968, “reminds all of us of a stock character in our scientific lives: the brilliant, erratic, somewhat lazy tea table loudmouth,” who is forever explaining your own experiments to you, “but never seems to finish one himself.” [1] He turned their colleague Maurice Wilkins — with whom Watson and Crick shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 — into the quintessential meek, over-gentlemanly Englishman. The most brutal caricature is his sketch of the brilliant crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, Wilkins’s colleague and nemesis in the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit, at King’s College London. A classically educated product of an old, wealthy, English Jewish family, Franklin was refined, whip-smart, stylish, and warm to her friends. She could also show a temper, and with friend or foe she practiced debate as others practice fencing: as a sport of quick reflexes, decisive parries, and bold thrusts. Watson turned her into the terrible “Rosy,” the brainy, school-marmish disciplinarian who bickered with Wilkins and continually thwarted Watson and Crick’s helical schemes. The cruelty of Watson’s portrayal was compounded by the fact that he and Crick relied on her data without her knowledge and, moreover, that Franklin died tragically of ovarian cancer in 1958. She was thus unable to defend herself against Watson’s harsh sketch.

Superficially, The Secret of Life seems the polar opposite of The Double Helix. Watson’s breezy book reads like a beach novel; Markel’s is five times the length and has all the apparatus of a scholarly history: context-setting introductory chapters, footnotes, index. Stylistically, Watson is terse, snarky, deadpan; Markel, verbose, earnest, humorless.

But beneath the bloat, The Secret of Life is base-paired to The Double Helix. Once the narrative gets underway, Secret matches Helix nearly chapter for chapter. Both books take Watson back to his pre-Cambridge fellowship in Copenhagen in 1950–’51. Both follow him to Naples, where he first saw X-ray images of DNA taken by Wilkins, and then bring him to Cambridge and the Cavendish Laboratory of Physics, where he meets Crick. Watson gets to know Wilkins, the assistant director of the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College London, and adopts his dislike for Franklin. Markel continues to follow Watson’s narrative arc throughout the story, but each chapter flips light and dark, portraying Franklin as a victim and Watson as a conniving evil genius. He seems as obsessed with Watson as Watson was with DNA: Watson’s name occurs as often as Franklin’s and Crick’s combined. [2] So although Markel gives us the most critical reading yet of Watson’s role in the double helix discovery, no other account hews so closely to Watson’s narrative or gives him such an outsize role in the discovery.

Markel’s characters are as two-dimensional as Watson’s. He paints Wilkins as a bitter, neurotic, depressive toady, not even worth a mention in the title. Crick is a manic pawn in Watson’s game, who, incredibly, claims Markel, Watson manipulated toward his own ends. Watson himself is portrayed as cold, calculating, Machiavellian. All of these are off-pitch. Like a prolix Double Helix, Secret is gossipy, chocked with overamped actions and gestures, hyperbole, and invention. Markel suggests that Wilkins was secretly in love with Franklin, based on rumors that even the gossipers cast doubt upon. He writes that at one point Sir Lawrence Bragg, director of the Cavendish, tried to “banish” Crick from the lab; in fact, he merely asked a colleague for advice about his brilliant but aimless problem child. He also tells us that Franklin was “exiled” to J. D. Bernal’s laboratory at Birkbeck College. Yet in a letter from the time — from which Markel quotes — Franklin writes that she has gone to see Bernal and has not yet told the director of the lab, John Randall. On no evidence, Markel speculates, “Randall himself may have eased the transition by speaking sotto voce with Bernal before Franklin approached him.” In the face of reliable counterevidence, then, he strips power and agency from Franklin, handing her fate to her powerful male supervisors. Thus, Markel resurrects what Franklin’s biographer Brenda Maddox called the “myth of the wronged heroine.” [3] Victimizing Franklin, notes Maddox, does her an enormous disservice. Franklin can be read accurately as a tragic heroic figure who has received full recognition only posthumously. Markel makes her pitiful, a passive victim.

The heart of Markel’s book, the conspiracy theory, is built on sand. Much of his case is made by speculation, insinuation, and innuendo, which is often larded with trivial detail to make it seem robust. In The Double Helix, Watson writes, “Maurice and I walked down the Strand and across to Choy’s Restaurant in Soho.” His description of the dinner is impressionistic and focused on science. No other record of the event exists. From this passage, Markel finds active collusion and a large menu: “Over platters of chop suey, curry chicken, chips, and fried rice, all lubricated with black tea and cheap red wine, Watson and Wilkins engaged in the old-school bonding of men as they conspired to exclude Rosalind Franklin from the DNA hunt.” With the writing of a letter that was irregular but hardly damning, Markel writes, Max Perutz “formally” joined “the conspiracy against Rosalind Franklin,” as though a contract were signed in blood.

The most notorious moment in all accounts of the double helix occurs in early 1953, when Wilkins shows Watson the famous Photograph 51, an X-ray image of DNA’s “B” form, taken by Franklin and the graduate student Raymond Gosling the previous spring and given by him to Wilkins. It was the clearest, sharpest image of B DNA yet taken; Watson claims that when he saw it, his “mouth fell open” with sudden recognition. Wilkins showed the photo to Watson unbidden. Markel reanimates the long-settled debate over whether Watson “stole” the photograph, relying not on new evidence but rather on haughty, misguided rhetorical questions. “Why would Franklin authorize her graduate student to freely hand over so critical a discovery to the individual at King’s College she most despised?,” he writes. “Why did she not hand-deliver it to [the head of the institute] John Randall?” First, as even Markel admits, Gosling’s behavior was standard procedure. It didn’t require “authorization.” Gosling thought it was okay to give the photo to Wilkins; Wilkins thought it was okay to show the photo to Watson. Second, Franklin evidently didn’t see the image as “critical.” It had lain in a drawer for eight months while she worked on the “A” form, whose X-ray diffractions were easier to measure but harder to interpret. Third, what Wilkins handed over wasn’t a discovery. It was data. Dozens of similar photographs lay around the lab; 51 was a particularly good example. Finally, Wilkins was assistant director of the Biophysics Unit, was Gosling’s and, technically if not in practice, Franklin’s supervisor, and was working on B DNA. Randall ran an empire of several lab groups and wouldn’t have known B-DNA from Z-DNA. To hand the picture to him would have been bizarre.

Historical consensus, which is by no means overly sympathetic toward Watson, is that Watson was ruthless but not fraudulent in his hunt for the structure. No historian has suggested foul play by any other member of either the Cavendish or King’s laboratories. What Markel has discovered, then, is just plain old English-country-garden-variety sexism, the old chaps’ network grinding away, and Watson’s adroit use of it to get what he wanted. Systemic sexism is the far more serious problem at play in the double helix story. To call it a conspiracy is simplistic, sensational, and ultimately obscurantist.

What a scientist of Franklin’s fiercely dignified, no-nonsense style deserves is an account that details the subtle machinations of the old chaps’ network and how it limited and muted women’s contributions to science. What we get instead is the height of the Burton Bell Tower (212 feet), Mt. Vesuvius “erupt[ing] all over” Pompeii, and a condom, about which we learn more than anyone should have to. Sometime before Franklin arrived at King’s, Wilkins used it to solve a humidity problem around the X-ray beam. “There is no record of what Franklin thought of this rubbery feature,” Markel tells us, meaning the rubber. But when “Gosling and Wilkins were fiddling with their apparatus” one afternoon, Wilkins had “pulled out from his pocket a packet of Durex condoms — a popular British brand, whose trade name, coined in 1929, was an amalgam of durability, reliability, and excellence — and suggested to Gosling, ‘Try this.’”

Franklin was crisp, relentlessly logical. Miserable at King’s, she became taut, restrained. Her portrayal here is anything but. As she readies for work, we linger uncomfortably on her hemline and makeup, watch her put on her raincoat and take an umbrella from a brass umbrella-stand, and then follow her all the way to the lab. “With each determined step, one could hear the clickety-clack of her squared high heels hitting the pavement.” The line is over-determined. “Clickety-clack,” Markel repeats as Franklin enters the laboratory building, “her heels echoed on the slick, wet marble floor of the main foyer, dominated by a huge staircase and larger-than-life marble statues of the Greek playwright Sophocles and Sappho, the Greek lyric poet — each stationed without collegiate edict or signage to indicate their purpose there.” The tone is patronizing, the contrast with its subject jarring, the effect on the reader suffocating. Clickety-clack!

The text bristles with contemporary buzzwords like “white male privilege,” yet from page one it positively drips white male privilege. The first chapter, “Opening credits,” begins with epigraphs from Winston Churchill and Voltaire (in the original French, of course, as well as translated). Phrases of Romance languages recur ad nauseam. Imagery of European high culture, of symphony (135, 225, 381, 423), opera (84, 127, 176), and sculpture (134, 221) abounds. In tell-all detail, we learn of the author’s privileged access to archival sources. He refers to himself in the third person pompous, as in, “Perutz’s response remains the best elucidation of the vagaries of crystallography this historian has seen.” And when he bounds to Franklin’s defense, the effect can be downright comical. Reading Watson’s epilogue to The Double Helix, in which Watson writes of Franklin’s “exemplary courage and integrity,” Markel works himself up into what may well be the most performative high dudgeon this historian has ever seen: “Why shroud her ‘exemplary courage and integrity’ in so many best-selling pages inked from the wells of misogyny, callousness, competition, discrimination, anti-Semitism, patriarchy, cultural and class differences, immaturity, harassment, and nonsense?”

It’s laudable for men to aid the dismantling of structural sexism, racism, and other social injustices. But one doesn’t want to be that old white guy who snatches the megaphone at the Women’s March. Instead of checking his privilege, Markel flaunts it. Instead of centering Franklin and other women in science, he recapitulates the masculine master narrative with sanctimonious judgment, and then keeps jumping in front of the camera.

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The book would be a more convincing defense of Franklin if Markel weren’t constantly stealing the spotlight. Nowhere is this clearer than in the epilogue, “Closing credits.” Scroll forward to 2018, when Markel went to Cold Spring Harbor to interview Watson. Once the best-known living scientist, Watson had since 2007 sabotaged his own reputation by repeating long-debunked racist claims about genes and intelligence. Increasingly, he tended to lapse into racist, conspiratorial rants. Yet he still commanded power, still had (and has) gatekeepers. Only the intelligent, famous, wealthy, and powerful get in. Overwhelmingly in Watson’s case, that means privileged white men.

Markel spends a week with him. He takes pains to show us how intimate they become. “In person,” he writes, “Watson was a charming, brilliant, and highly likable man,” even though “he did not refrain from articulating his repugnant views on Africans, African Americans, Asians, and other ethnic groups, including mine, Eastern European Jews.” Watson invites him to dinner and drinks with him and “his charming wife,” Liz. Markel brings not just one book for Watson to sign, but a stack of them. Markel has books, too, and he makes sure we know that Watson asked him to send him some. “We discovered that we genuinely liked each other,” he preens.

But it’s a trap. Having won the old man’s trust, he turns the interview into a “cat-and-mouse game.” He lingers uncomfortably on Watson’s appearance: “Pear-shaped, with layered bulges of fat rippling out along his torso, he appeared to be a geriatric version of the Michelin Man.” Cat baits mouse with stale cheese, a leading and familiar question: “So you were not acting in an honorable manner when you looked at Photograph No. 51?” Mouse evades, pivots to Wilkins. “I was not trying to beat him,” he says. “But — It was so obvious and clear that I had to run with it.” None of this is new. Watson has always been candid about his ambition, competitiveness, and opportunism. So the camera zooms in on Markel, who turns away from Watson and gazes into the lens. “He had ‘to run with it,’” he intones sarcastically.

He had to meet his scientific destiny of solving the riddle of DNA first. He had to become James Watson, the Nobel laureate who changed how the world understood life itself, no matter what the cost to himself or to others. And to accommodate the legend he wanted to become, he had to obscure Rosalind Franklin’s role in their landmark discovery.

Watson is the first person thanked in the acknowledgments — the victor shaking hands with the vanquished. Fade to black.

After 500 pages of such stuff, the last line of “Opening Credits” — after the bomb has dropped on Crick’s “secret of life!” exclamation at the Eagle — rings truer than ever: “And now it is time to tell how it really happened.”

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Warm thanks to George Estreich, whose critical eye shaped this essay in ways large and small. Any blind spots or blunders are my own.

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Nathaniel Comfort is professor of History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. His previous books include The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control, The Panda’s Black Box: Opening Up the Intelligent Design Debate, and The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. He is working on a biography of James Watson.

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[1] Lewontin, R. C. “Honest Jim’: Watson’s Big Thriller about DNA (1968).” In The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Norton Critical Edition), 185–87. Norton & Co, 1981, 187.

[2] “Watson” occurs 1,776 times, compared to 912 (“Franklin”), 882 (“Crick”), and 802 (“Wilkins”).

[3] Maddox, Brenda. “The Double Helix and the ‘Wronged Heroine.’” Nature 421, no. 6921 (January 2003): 407–408. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01399.