Girls, guts, gossip and genetic glory

The Writing Life of James D. Watson
March 25, 2005

Double-helix pioneer James Watson's double career produced stellar science writing, as an overview reminds Jon Turney

Which winner of the Nobel prize has a voice so loud that it can produce a buzzing in the ears?" "Who is the top Cambridge scientist who gossips over dinner about the private lives of women undergraduates?" "Which eminent English biologist created a scandal at a costume party by dressing up as George Bernard Shaw and kissing all the girls behind the anonymity of a red scraggly beard?"

How deplorable! How appalling! Or so it seemed in the 1960s, when this would-be sensational book blurb was briefly appended to James Watson's The Double Helix . Watson sent a cable to his London publisher protesting the grievous insult to his former co-worker Francis Crick and threatening to sue unless all copies of the offending jacket were destroyed. One survives in the Watson archives at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in upstate New York. The book itself survives in the more than 1 million copies sold.

Of the dynamic duo who presented the world with the structure of DNA half a century ago, the late Francis Crick has had a better press. Watson was the brash, graceless, ambitious American with an eye for the main chance, who saw the search for the structure as a race for Nobel glory and would stop at nothing to win it. The exuberant Englishman, in contrast, was simply in love with the problem. When Crick burst into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and announced to the lunchtime drinkers that the pair had discovered the secret of life, his tongue, one feels, was at least partly in cheek. Watson probably believed it.

That impression seemed to fit their later careers, too, which followed separate paths almost as soon as the famous joint manuscript went off to Nature . Crick stayed in Cambridge and did more great science - rather a lot of it. He shunned teaching, administration and most public honours, and when he retired from the Medical Research Council, he simply carried on with research, although he traded Cambridge for California.

Watson did all the things Crick did not. He was a Harvard professor at an alarmingly youthful 33, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, promoter and founding director of the US Human Genome Project, and lived deep in the politics of science.

It is too soon for a full assessment of either. But there is a more complex story to tell about both men. For Watson, a key part of that story is the way he fashioned both his own image and that of the new science of molecular biology. The dominant impression of the American - gawky, gauche, preoccupied with sexual as well as worldly success, but with little experience of either - comes from his own account of the Cambridge days in The Double Helix . The other character sketches in that "personal account of scientific discovery", as the subtitle puts it, are often little more than cartoons, from boastful Crick and scary Rosalind Franklin to authoritative but avuncular Sir Lawrence Bragg. But however uncharitable he was towards others, Watson was equally unsparing of himself. He created a vivid impression of the state of mind of a startlingly young, intellectually arrogant but socially awkward interloper making his way among the British intelligentsia. It was the work not of Watson the scientist, but of Watson the writer.

In fact, in a survey of his working life, his writing is probably as important as his contributions to research and to science advocacy. He may not have originated the scientific memoir, but he certainly reinvented it.

A host of later books chronicling the vicissitudes of research and the tensions and rivalries within and between labs are mainly inspired by The Double Helix . And Watson was equally influential in a completely different sphere. Molecular Biology of the Gene , first published in 1965, three years before his autobiographical book appeared, reinvented the undergraduate science textbook and was a huge publishing success.

Watson went on to instigate other textbooks, on cell biology and recombinant DNA, to produce a rather laboured sequel to The Double Helix and to shine as an essayist, mostly in formal lectures or annual forewords to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Report . It all adds up to an enviably successful second career.

Errol Friedberg's work is a straightforward account of Watson's writing life, concerned mainly with the content of his books, with a little background on their composition and a few comments on the reviews. It traces Watson's development from a youthful admirer of John Dos Passos, Christopher Isherwood and Graham Greene - who found that "the characters in novels were much more real to me than my friends" - to a new Nobel laureate attempting to write a book about science that would be as readable as The Great Gatsby , and trying to offer a clear account of the new biology to his students.

It is fascinating to be reminded how violently some readers objected to Watson's writing about science as if he were writing a novel - and not always because their names appeared in The Double Helix . Friedberg records in detail the strained negotiations with those who did appear, most notably Crick, who argued forcefully against publication. It is a well-known story, but it comes alive again here, with many original documents reproduced. And in case anyone felt that The Double Helix - already pored over and deconstructed more than any other scientific text, with the possible exception of that joint letter to Nature - was exhausted as a scholarly topic, Friedberg tantalises with the information that the Watson archive includes "18 binders of material, containing almost as many versions of the manuscript".

Delving into the successive versions is not his interest. He does reveal, though, that the famous opening sentence, "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood", survived intact from a first draft penned in 1962. This suggests that the long gestation and multiple drafts were more to do with worries about the politics and personal sensitivities than a struggle to find a style or a voice.

Much less studied but surely inviting just as much close attention is Molecular Biology of the Gene , a book that developed out of Watson's Harvard lectures. As a young man, he had read Erwin Schrodinger's miniature classic, What is Life? Now, he suggested the title "This is Life". It did not make the cut, but it was a strong signal of the book's style: declarative, focused on fundamental problems, key concepts and crucial experiments. It was wonderfully clear, both in the writing, which was revised with feedback from non-biology student readers, and the presentation. Many of the devices now taken for granted in such texts were proved here: the short, logically ordered sections building a single argument, the striking headings. The illustrations, designed by the brilliant 18-year-old Keith Roberts, who would work on many subsequent projects, also laid down schematics of the molecular world that have become conventional because they were so effective.

One payoff from all this clarity and intellectual conviction was an unusual quality for a textbook: Molecular Biology of the Gene was exciting to read. By the time the second edition appeared in 1970, the book had sold 100,000 copies. It had an influence on a generation of biology students akin to the Feynman lectures for physicists. But unlike those volumes, Molecular Biology of the Gene has been continually updated, and the fifth edition has the now-standard textbook accoutrements of co-authors, CD-Roms and web materials. Happily, it retains many of the virtues of the original, and a good measure of those virtues is that, today, this just looks the way these things are done.

As well as memoir and pedagogy, Watson's other writings range widely over science and politics, and Friedberg takes in these as well. Nowadays, Watson enjoys a reputation for being habitually politically incorrect, but so do many whose main concern is not to suffer fools. And anyone who sees him as a reactionary will have to account for sentiments such as the following, in response to President Nixon's "war on cancer" in the Seventies. While many biologists simply welcomed a funding boost, Watson wrote:"We must wonder to what extent the current American hysteria to conquer cancer within the next decade arises from the feeling that an infirmity which strikes without respect for social, racial or economic class must be an easier objective than a moral cancer which grows out of a nation's incapacity to acknowledge the conveniently remote victims of surgical bombing strikes."

Aside from nuggets such as this, the main value of Freidberg's overview is putting The Double Helix into the context of Watson's lifetime of writing. There is virtually nothing here in the way of literary or even critical analysis. The closest Friedberg comes to criticism is in his account of Genes, Girls and Gamow , the long-delayed successor to The Double Helix . The book, which appeared in 2001, is another attempt to capture the person Watson once was, but it suffers from the fact that his life and his science were mired in uncertainty in the years after the triumph with DNA, and this seems to have been embodied, rather than transcended, in the writing.

Friedberg avers timidly that "opinions vary about how successful he was".

It is perhaps the only one of Watson's writing projects that was not a big success. When a collection of his essays were published as A Passion for DNA , the New England Journal of Medicine hailed him as the "prose laureate" of the biomedical sciences. Lewis Thomas, Loren Eiseley and Edward O.

Wilson may have better claims to that title, but, while Wilson comes close, Watson has been a more influential writer than any of them. Friedberg's book is a convenient reminder of the range and importance of his work and an invitation to engage with it anew.

Jon Turney is visiting fellow in science and technology studies, University College London. He will convene Imperial College London's MSc in creative non-fiction in the autumn.

The Writing Life of James D. Watson

Author - Errol C. Friedberg
Publisher - Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press
Pages - 193
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 87969 700 8

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