547: The Double Helix by James Watson

by Gerard


547.596: Watson, James. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of Structure of DNA. New York: Touchstone, 2001. 226 pp. ISBN 0-7432-1630-X

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science
  • 540: Chemistry
  • 547: Organic chemistry
  • 547.5: Cyclic compounds
  • 547.59: Heterocyclic compounds
  • 547.596: Fused heterocyclic compounds

Before 1952, no knew what DNA looked like. Isolated chemically in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, no one had been able to come up with its definitive structure. But a single X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling in May 1952 changed all that. Known as Photo 51, it gave James Watson and Francis Crick insight into how the molecule was arranged. Watson’s The Double Helix gives his perspective on the research, discovery, publication, and aftermath of the discovery that some would define as the greatest of the 20th century.

One thing to note about this book is that the original text was written in 1968, six years after Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their work on nucleic acids, and ten years after Rosalind Franklin died. It is written from the perspective whose beliefs in science are wild and enthusiastic and whose attitudes towards women and society were stuck in the 1940s. Writing a first-hand account of a scientific discovery may seem vainglorious, but it does give some insight into the scientific process and how information from different sources can be used to further new research. While there are some who agree that Franklin should have received more acclaim, all the work that came from the King’s College lab in London have furthered science in ways not even Watson could not have foreseen. One would do well to pair this book with something a little more objective to get a better sense of the history of the discovery. Other than that, it was still a fun read.