April 25: James Watson and Francis Crick published their article on the doublehelix structure of DNA in Nature magazine on this day in 1953. Watsonbegins 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 thatbelieved in books, birds, and the Democratic Party.” The chapter ends withthe life-lesson, “Find a young hero to emulate”:
On one ofour regular Friday night visits to the Seventy-third Street public library, myfather encouraged me to borrow Paul de Kruif’s celebrated 1926 book, MicrobeHunters. In it were fascinating stories of how infectious diseases werebeing conquered by scientists who went after bad germs with the same tenacityas Sherlock Holmes pursuing the evil Dr. Moriarty. Some months later I broughthome Arrowsmith, in which Sinclair Lewis, helped by Paul de Kruif asexpert consultant, relates the never-realized hope of his hero to save victimsfrom cholera by treating them with bacteria-killing viruses. The protagonist’syouth gripped me and made me realize that science could be like baseball: ayoung man’s game whose stars made their mark in their early twenties.
Publicationof the DNA article was just a few weeks after Watson’s twenty-fifth birthday,but as told in his 1967 book The DoubleHelix, it came as much from a whiff by Linus Pauling as a homerun byWatson, Crick, and their team at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. Pauling wasalso close to making the double helix discovery, but he had just published ascientific paper containing a fundamental error:
Theblooper was too unbelievable to keep secret for more than a few minutes. Idashed over to Roy Markham’s lab to spurt out the news and to receive furtherreassurance that Linus’ chemistry was screwy. Markham predictably expressedpleasure that a giant had forgotten elementary college chemistry. …By teatime Iwas back in the Cavendish, where Francis was explaining to John and Max that nofurther time must be lost on this side of the Atlantic. When his mistake becameknown, Linus would not stop until he had captured the right structure.
As toldin Brenda Maddox’s recent biography, RosalindFranklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Watson and Crick won the DNA race only bygetting crucial research from Franklin, whom they and science history have notadequately 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.