The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix by James D. Watson; edited by Alexander Gann & Jan Witkowski
(Simon & Schuster, 2012, 345 pages)
In 1962 Watson, Crick, and Wilkins jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their 1953 determination of the structure of DNA. Watson chronicles this important scientific discovery that continues to shape our lives today. After getting his degrees at the University of Chicago and Indiana University, Watson did postdoctoral research in Copenhagen. He then worked at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where he and his fellow researchers explored the structure of DNA.
I first read The Double Helix for extra credit for school. I was surprised at how entertaining the book was. This new edition is even better! The annotations, pictures, and other primary documents greatly enhance the whole reading experience. I was amused when I read the letter from the U.S. State Department on denying Linus Pauling’s request for a passport. Pauling, the greatest American biochemist and a peace activist, was invited to speak at a science conference in London in 1952. The State Department believed that granting Pauling’s passport “would not be in the best interest of the United States.” Pauling later received a Nobel Chemistry prize in 1954 and a Nobel Peace prize in 1962.
Also new to this edition are the appendices. They are interesting and contain Watson’s apology for his patronizing attitude towards Rosalind Franklin who died in 1958 of ovarian cancer. Franklin was a British biophysicist best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. The Nobel Prizes are awarded to living people so Franklin was ineligible for nomination in 1962. The book reveals that Franklin was treated unfairly by her male colleagues; her contributions did not get recognized fully.
Watson’s writing style is lively and descriptive. The book not only covers the history of DNA discovery, it also includes personal and scientific rivalries. It’s fun to read about these scientists and to get to know their human sides. A science book that reads like a novel!