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Genes, girls and Gamow

After the double helix

Turned by a helix?

I've encountered James D. Watson in the flesh just once. He was at The Royal Society in LondonFUNKAR INTE ????????? to receive an award from the Genetics Society a few years ago. His acceptance speech was rambling and the volume of his voice fluctuated wildly so that at times he was barely audible. He was rude to some of those who asked him questions, he made several offensive remarks and his comments about a distinguished fellow scientist were astonishing. Although others had warned me about Watson's demeanour, I was shocked to find that they had not been exaggerating. Has he always been like this, I wondered?

'Genes, girls and Gamow' is James Watson's biography of the years immediately after he and Francis Crick suggested a double-helical structure for DNA. It covers mainly the period from 1953 to 1956 and follows Watson back to the USA (to Caltech, workplace of Linus Pauling), then a brief return to Cambridge before finally taking up a post at Harvard University in the USA. This was the time when most of the key players had yet to receive a Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin was still alive and working, and the precise role of RNA in protein synthesis was still a matter for speculation. There's also a short epilogue that describes events up to 1968 when he was appointed Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and married Liz Lewis.

The book has been complied in part from correspondence between Watson, his teenage girlfriend of the time and George Gamow - the Russian physicist turned biologist and instigator of the 'RNA Tie Club'. Why Watson wrote this account and who he thought might be at all interested in it is something of a mystery. The science within is too fragmentary and arcane for most readers to follow. Watson's blow-by-blow account of his and others' social lives, which forms the bulk of the text, is simply embarrassing. He meets many famous people, but never tells us what any of them are like. There is no real narrative. This is a great shame, as in 'The Double Helix' Waston showed that he could weave an amusing and enthralling, if controversial, tale.

When I turned the last page of this book, I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for a man who had, perhaps unwittingly at the age of 73 and encouraged by a publisher, exposed his flaws and private life to the world. Another reviewer has suggested that a close friend should have stopped him from bearing his soul. We're all human and maybe Watson is just an unfashionably honest human. Unfortunately, Peter Pauling, one of the book's main 'victims', points out in his foreword that "As a work of reference to what actually happened, this book is unreliable. There are many mistakes and errors of fact".

So, I'm still none the wiser. Has Watson always been brash and opinionated? It really doesn't matter. If you want to discover more about what happened after 'The Double Helix', read Francis Crick's modest and entertaining memoir 'What mad pursuit', or if you're interested in an authoritative historical account try Horace Freeland Judson's 'The eighth day of creation'.

Dean Madden
National Centre for Biotechnology Education
The University of Reading Whiteknights
PO Box 226
Reading RG6 6AP
The United Kingdom

1. What mad pursuit by Francis Crick (1990) Penguin Books, London. ISBN: 0 14011 973 6. [Currently out-of-print]
2. The eighth day of creation by Horace Freeland Judson (1996) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York. ISBN: 0 87969 478 5.

Sidansvarig: Sven Toresson|Sidan uppdaterades: 2016-07-13

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