On the morning of February 28, 1953, the biologist James Watson and the physicist Francis Crick worked out the double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule better known as DNA.
It was purely a model without a scintilla of original research behind it—Watson and Crick purloined Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography data that spelled the structure out quite nicely, and got in just in time to cut the ceremonial ribbon on major advances in medicine, genetic engineering, and forensic science.
At lunchtime, the duo celebrated at the Eagle Pub, a mere 100 steps from their Cavendish Laboratory office at Cambridge University. Francis “winged” into the pub, as Watson later wrote in his autobiography, The Double Helix, shouting at the top of his voice, “We have discovered the secret of life!”
That is, Watson claimed this was how it happened—even though, for the rest of his life, Crick politely but firmly denied ever having made such a statement.
Sixty-three years later, on May 16, 2016, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island, held an early celebration for what would have been Francis Crick’s 100th birthday. (Crick died at the age of 88, on July 28, 2004.)
Opening the symposium was another 88-year-old man, his shoulders stooped from years spent over a desk, wisps of white hair taking flight from his pink, mottled scalp. He stood at the podium in the well of a beautiful new auditorium he had recently raised the funds to build, reveling in the audience’s attention. He was “King James” Watson, and this was his undisputed scientific kingdom.
Watson began his remarks by repeating the Eagle Pub story he so notably told in The Double Helix. This time, however, he finally admitted to having invented Crick’s supposed exclamation “for dramatic effect.”
“We have discovered the secret of life!”
Two years later, in the summer of 2018, sitting in the shadow of the Cold Spring Harbor double-helical bell tower, he explained his word choice more emphatically to me. “Francis should have said it and would have said it. So, it was totally in character when I wrote that, and everyone would think it.”
The most famous scientific announcement of the 20th century was not made in the way most of us were taught in high school.
This apocryphal moment, like so many others constituting the epic search for DNA’s structure, has long been exaggerated, altered, shaped, and embellished. An unwieldy tower of memoirs, journalistic accounts, and biographies have each told the DNA story from the viewpoint of one participant or another, so that by now the story has been subjected to an extreme Rashomon effect. Much of what readers conclude depends on whose version they last read.
James Watson has often dismissed his detractors with the quip “There are only molecules. Everything else is sociology.” Yet history teaches us that the course of human affairs rarely moves along such narrow, binary paths.
Howard Markel’s The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix publishes September 21 from W. W. Norton