So you think you know the double helix story?

21 April 2003
by Henry Nicholls

So you think you know the story of how the structure of DNA was discovered? Think again, say New York science historians. Single-handedly, James Watson has massaged our understanding of the events of 1953, and now, in 2003, is dictating how we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery, they allege.

The anniversary has been marked with numerous exhibitions, journal special issues, and meetings, not to mention a bewildering array of commemorative publications, coins and stamps.

This much is understandable. After all, working out the double helical structure of DNA was an unrivalled contribution to science and society. But, say some, we would do well to reflect on how one man, James Watson, has single-handedly influenced what we know about and how we are celebrating this discovery.

The structure of DNA was revealed to the world in three articles in a single issue of Nature published on 25 April 1953. The first of the trio of articles was the famous letter by James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick that brought them credit for unraveling the detailed structure of the double helix, and simultaneously cast a long shadow over the contributions of numerous other researchers from whom Watson and Crick had drawn inspiration and obtained data. Today, 50 years on, the anniversary of the discovery is still under Watson's influence, says Pnina Abir-Am, a historian of science at Rockefeller University in New York.

"It is totally dominated by one person, J.D. Watson, whose role really was more of a science entrepreneur, collating the work of others," said Abir-Am. "The discovery was made by two scientists who never properly acknowledged the work of others, most notably Franklin, Chargaff, Pauling and Wilkins," she said. "It is incomprehensible how long this unusual appropriation has been going on."

The first published account of the events that lead Watson and Crick, then working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, to piece together their famous model of DNA was written by Watson himself in 1968. An instant best seller, The Double Helix is widely recognized as an exaggerated and subjective account of events. Indeed, Watson admits as much in its subtitle, A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.

Nevertheless, it is the most important factor behind the widespread fascination with the double-helix story, says Darwin Stapleton, executive director of the Rockefeller Archive Center in New York. "I think Watson's book is the largest single ingredient," said Stapleton. "For all its flaws, it has engaged millions of people," he said. "It's almost theater, and it's very powerful theater."

One of the most dramatic aspects of Watson's book was the portrayal of his relationship with Rosalind Franklin. "Rosalind Franklin is ... a clear case of someone who didn't live long enough to get the Nobel," said Stapleton.

Franklin was a leading physical chemist at King's College London, whose research involved taking unique X-ray photographs of DNA. It was one of these photographs - the now famous "photograph 51" - that, according to Watson's 1968 account (and reiterated subsequently), played a revelatory role in the discovery, when Maurice Wilkins, assistant head of Franklin's department, showed it to Watson. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," wrote Watson in The Double Helix.

Whilst Watson's excitement is understandable, for this was indeed an exceptional photograph of the hydrated 'B-form' of DNA that revealed its helical nature, in terms of the information it conveyed to Watson, it was by no means unique, says Franklin's biographer, Brenda Maddox. "There were many of them, and they'd all been taking them with various degrees of success for many years," she said. Maddox even suspects that photograph 51 was actually taken by Franklin's PhD student, Raymond Gosling, whose role in the DNA drama is elaborated in a news story on BioMedNet News. "I think you probably could say that Gosling took it," she said.

In Watson's dramatization, Gosling's contribution is virtually ignored, agrees James Tait, who together with his late wife Sylvia Simpson and Tadeus Reichstein revealed the molecular structure of aldosterone in 1953, a discovery that at the time received much wider publicity than did the double helix. "I think the real martyr of the story is Gosling and not Franklin," said Tait, who is to publish a book on the events of 1953. "I don't suppose Gosling would ever have got [the Nobel prize], but he was involved in all the work," he said.

Although Watson's adventitious glimpse of photograph 51 stimulated him to resume model building, a far greater lead came from a Medical Research Council report on King's College that Cavendish colleague, Max Perutz, leaked to Watson and Crick the following week. This contained details of Franklin and Gosling's research, from which Crick would learn that DNA was comprized of two helical and anti-parallel strands.

In spite of this preview of Franklin and Gosling's unpublished data, much of which appeared in the last of the trio of articles in the 25 April 1953 issue of Nature, Watson and Crick still included the following in their letter: "We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure ..."

And yet, in spite of the debt owed to those at King's (and to countless others, including Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, Alec Stokes, Linus Pauling, Robert Corey, Erwin Chargaff, and Jerry Donohue), the 50th anniversary of the discovery is reinforcing rather than reassessing the roles played by Watson and Crick, says Abir-Am, who has written extensively on how scientists celebrate their achievements. "There is ... little effort in the so-called official manifestations to bring to light new research that can still change dramatically what we think we know of how this discovery was made," she said.

On 28th February this year - which, according to Watson's account, was exactly 50 years after Crick had "winged into The Eagle [pub in Cambridge] and told everybody we had found the secret of life," - Watson received a standing ovation at a DNA gala dinner in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, says historian Stapleton. The event was, in part, organized by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the institute that Watson has been president and director of since 1968.

Crick, now 86-years old and too frail to attend in person, appeared to the gathering on a TV screen and was applauded. Archive footage of Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer in 1958, was also shown and brought cheers and tears from the audience, says Stapleton. But the physical absence of these two key players in the DNA story allowed Watson to assume center stage.

"The scientific community is a monkey society, and ... he is an alpha male by virtue of associating his name with an important discovery while spreading a lot of smokescreen to deflect attention form the fact that most of the work had already been done by others," said Abir-Am, who suspects that historians will only be able to get at the truth of the double helix once Watson is out of the picture. "In any case, where you have a very dominant figure, à la Stalin and co., once the person is dead the beta monkeys are less intimidated and will start volunteering more info," she said.

The 50th anniversary of the double helix has been "vastly exaggerated," concludes Abir-Am. Scientific anniversaries, she warned, are used "to push for agendas in the present, and almost not at all to gain a better understanding of the past."

BioMedNet --