In feverish pursuit of determining DNA’s double helix
By Josie Glausiusz
July 24, 2013
My secondhand copy of James D. Watson’s The Double Helix is inscribed “To Poppie on his sixtieth birthday, so that we may share a triumph of science together,” and is signed and dated from someone named Robert on April 15, 1968—shortly after the memoir was published. The book, as Watson relates in his introduction, is “my version of how the structure of DNA was discovered,” an account that many scientists have questioned in its details. Raymond Gosling, who should know, is more forthright: “That book is a novel. A very successful novel, but it is a novel.”
Gosling, who utters these words in a recent interview with the journal Genome Biology, is one of two surviving scientists of the original seven whose research helped elucidate the structure of DNA. (The other is Watson himself, now 85 years old.) A Ph.D. student in 1953 when DNA’s structure was announced in the journal Nature, Gosling worked with Rosalind Franklin, the biophysicist whose now-famous x-ray image of crystallized DNA proved that it was a helix. That information helped Watson and his collaborator, Francis Crick, to build a model of the DNA molecule, a piece of deductive reasoning that earned Watson and Crick the 1962 Nobel Prize.
Gosling’s critique of The Double Helix is largely based on Watson’s portrayal of Franklin, a brilliant and accomplished young woman whom Watson depicted as dowdy (“her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents”), a problem (“the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab”), and possibly violent (“Suddenly Rosy came from behind the lab bench that separated us and began moving toward me. Fearing that in her hot anger she might strike me …”). Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958 and did not receive a share of the Nobel Prize.
Gosling admits that he is angry at the way Franklin was portrayed in The Double Helix. But in the recent interview—and in a podcast on the website of the journal Nature—he also provides a fascinating portrait of the feverish pursuit that led to this “triumph of science.” As a student, Gosling had become “the first person on earth to crystallize DNA,” after some misguided experiments with ram’s sperm. When Watson learned that it was possible to crystallize the molecule, he realized that it was also possible to determine its structure.
Watson and Crick’s first attempt, in 1951, to build a model of DNA—based in part on Franklin’s data—was met with her derision, Gosling says. She “tore the model apart point by point … with obvious relish.” Gosling believes, in retrospect, that Watson’s negative portrayal of Franklin in The Double Helix may have been payback for her demolition of this first, incorrect, model. “He must have felt humiliated. Who the hell is this woman telling me? Yes, you can see it more clearly looking back.”
Watson and Crick went on to build an accurate model of DNA—the model that they showed the world on February 28, 1953. Although Gosling credits Watson as having “without doubt a very lively mind,” it is Franklin whom he remembers as “a great experimentalist”: “She didn’t suffer fools gladly. She was very workmanlike in the laboratory … and had fierce powers of concentration.” And when she saw the model that Watson and Crick had built, she said, very simply, “We all stand on each other’s shoulders.”
Josie Glausiusz writes about science and the environment for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. From 2013 to 2015 she wrote The American Scholar’s “On Science” blog. Her Hakai Magazine article, “Land Divided, Coast United,” won Amnesty International Canada's 2015 Online Media Award.