Watson & Crick & DNA

April 25: James Watson and Francis Crick published their article on the double helix structure of DNA in Nature magazine on this day in 1953. Watson begins his 2007 memoir, Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science, by stating that he "was born in 1928 in Chicago into a family that believed in books, birds, and the Democratic Party." The chapter ends with the life-lesson, "Find a young hero to emulate":

On one of our regular Friday night visits to the Seventy-third Street public library, my father encouraged me to borrow Paul de Kruif's celebrated 1926 book, Microbe Hunters. In it were fascinating stories of how infectious diseases were being conquered by scientists who went after bad germs with the same tenacity as Sherlock Holmes pursuing the evil Dr. Moriarty. Some months later I brought home Arrowsmith, in which Sinclair Lewis, helped by Paul de Kruif as expert consultant, relates the never-realized hope of his hero to save victims from cholera by treating them with bacteria-killing viruses. The protagonist's youth gripped me and made me realize that science could be like baseball: a young man's game whose stars made their mark in their early twenties.

Publication of the DNA article was just a few weeks after Watson's twenty-fifth birthday, but as told in his 1967 book The Double Helix, it came as much from a whiff by Linus Pauling as a homerun by Watson, Crick, and their team at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. Pauling was also close to making the double helix discovery, but he had just published a scientific paper containing a fundamental error:

The blooper was too unbelievable to keep secret for more than a few minutes. I dashed over to Roy Markham's lab to spurt out the news and to receive further reassurance that Linus' chemistry was screwy. Markham predictably expressed pleasure that a giant had forgotten elementary college chemistry. …By teatime I was back in the Cavendish, where Francis was explaining to John and Max that no further time must be lost on this side of the Atlantic. When his mistake became known, Linus would not stop until he had captured the right structure.

As told in Brenda Maddox's recent biography, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Watson and Crick won the DNA race only by getting crucial research from Franklin, whom they and science history have not adequately acknowledged.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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