'I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.' Thus James Watson opens his notorious account of the discovery of the structure of DNA which won him, Crick and Maurice Wilkins a Nobel Prize in 1962. Whichever other of Watson's judgments have been controversial - notably his dismissal of Rosalind Franklin, from whom, courtesy of Wilkins, he and Crick were provided with the crucial X-ray photographs of DNA crystals - his assessment of Crick has scarcely been disputed. The subsequent history of the DNA quartet is instructive in this regard. Franklin, miserable in the unfriendly and sexist environment of King's College, London, switched research topics from DNA to the structure of coal and moved to Birkbeck and the more welcoming lab of Desmond Bernal. Wilkins has remained at King's for the subsequent forty years, refining the early DNA measurements, working on the tubule-forming proteins of the cell's internal skeleton and quietly deploying the prestige of the Prize in his concerns over the social responsibility of science. Watson returned from Cambridge to the US and became director of a major research institute. His gift for the outrageously dismissive mauvais mot has never left him: its most recent manifestation a feud with the then director of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, which resulted in his abrupt departure from his position as the head of the Human Genome Project.
LRB 7 July 1994 | PDF Download