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About the Author

James Dewey Watson James D. Watson was born on April 6, 1928. Watson was an extremely industrious student and entered the University of Chicago when he was only 15. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology four years later, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in the same subject at Indiana show more University. He was performing research at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, when he first learned of the biomolecular research at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University in England. Watson joined Francis Crick in this work in 1951. At the age of 25, he and colleague Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the double helix. Watson went on to become a Senior Research Fellow in Biology at the California Institute of Technology, before returning to Cambridge in 1955. The following year he moved to Harvard University, where he became Professor of Biology, a post he held until 1976. Watson and Crick won the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Medicine for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nuclear acids and its significance for information transfer in living material. In 1968, Watson published his account of the DNA discovery, "The Double Helix." The book became an international best-seller. Watson became the Director and later President of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. In 1988 he served as Director of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, a massive project to decipher the entire genetic code of the human species. Watson has received many awards and medals for his work, along with the Nobel Prize, he has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Bowker Author Biography) show less
Image credit: © 2003 Bill Geddes

Works by James D. Watson

DNA: The Secret of Life (2003) 683 copies
Recombinant DNA (1983) 140 copies

Associated Works

Molecular Biology of the Cell (1983) — some editions — 1,153 copies
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008) — Contributor — 803 copies
The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics (2002) — Contributor — 17 copies


Common Knowledge



I was barely an adult when I read this memoir, believed it was history but now see it as memoir, one side of a complex story, though interesting.
mykl-s | 42 other reviews | Aug 4, 2023 |
James D. Watson was 24 years old when he and Francis Crick published their paper announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. Nine years later they would be awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Maurice Wilkins. This memoir is Watson's account of his life and work in 1951-53.

I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found. Although the latter approach might be more objective, it would fail to convey the spirit of an adventure characterized both by youthful arrogance and by the belief that the truth, once found, would be simple as well as pretty. Thus many of the comments may seem one-sided and unfair, but this is often the case in the incomplete and hurried way in which human beings frequently decide to like or dislike a new idea or acquaintance. In any event, this account represents the way I saw things then, in 1951-1953: the ideas, the people, and myself.

Watson was a newly minted PhD student when he was sent to Copenhagen to learn chemistry. Having no interest in this, he ends up at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. There he meets Francis Crick, and the two begin talking about genes. They want to work on the structure of DNA, but that area of study is already staked-out by Maurice Wilkins and his junior colleague Rosalind Wilkins of Kings College, and it was considered impolite to barge in on someone else's work. Watson and Crick are ambitious and eager to prove themselves, however. They decide to attack the problem using models, and after obtaining Franklin's x-ray crystallography data through an unofficial source, begin to make progress.

One of the things that surprised me when reading this memoir was the extent to which Watson and Crick were building on the ideas of others. Without Franklin's data and her insistence that the background of the structure had to be on the outside, rather than the inside; her measurement of water within DNA; and her discovery of A and B forms of DNA, Watson and Crick would have been up a creek. I was also surprised at how close other scientists were in making the discovery. Watson writes that he thinks Linus Pauling at Cal-Tech would have beaten them to it within a week. Certainly Pauling's discovery of the alpha helix and use of models heavily influenced Watson and Crick's own thinking.

As expected, Watson is harsh in his treatment of Rosalind Franklin. He faults her for not wearing lipstick and caring about her appearance, for her unfriendly demeanor, and for her sloppy science. In his epilogue, he offers an explanation, if not apology, for his initial impressions as represented in the book:

Since my initial impressions of her were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements...(he lists several that I mentioned above)...By then (late 50s) all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking...

Overall, I found the book interesting as a personal look inside a 1950s lab and a colorful, if not always fair, description of the scientists working on the puzzle of DNA.
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1 vote
labfs39 | 42 other reviews | Jan 19, 2023 |
A surprisingly easy read. The chapters are short and the writing style is breezy. It's a very personal account of James Watson's experiences studying overseas and his efforts, along with others, to discover the structure of DNA. It's surprising to find out how many other scientists at the time downplayed the importance of DNA. There is some detailed chemistry included in the book, much of which went over my head, but you can get the general gist of what was happening without having to understand the details. Since most of the book describes Watson's experiences and the race to be the first to discover the secret of DNA, higher level understanding of chemistry isn't necessary to enjoy the book. The book is very much Watson's personal viewpoint, and not a more general overview of the discovery.… (more)
atozgrl | 42 other reviews | Jan 16, 2023 |
I picked this book up in the hopes it would be the next step in my attempt to understand the building blocks of life. There is a little of that in its pages, but mostly it is something else: A gossipy account of how science is done by real human beings with their ambitions, rivalries, jealousies, and charm. Above all, the tale conveys a sense of the thrill of intellectual achievement.
The edition I read is expanded with annotations and appendices that fill in aspects of the story. At times, I found this paratext distracting and thought perhaps I should have read the unadorned version instead, which is written in an elliptic, casual style. It resembles the kind of crime story one quickly turns the pages of to while away a convalescent afternoon. On balance, though, I’m glad I read this edition to help fill in the story.
In its unconventional way, this book is a further take on what we’re all engaged in: Life investigating and attempting to understand life.
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HenrySt123 | 3 other reviews | Jul 19, 2021 |



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