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Subject: The Double Helix - was Re: Chem. Book for Grandson
From: (Bruce Hamilton)
Date: Mon, 05 May 1997 18:17:32 GMT

Eric Lucas <ealucas*antispam*> wrote:
>> >"William K. Gourley, M.D." <> wrote:
>> >>Are there any books you recommend, for a 16 year old high school student
>> >>who will take introductory chemistry in the fall, that would be a
>> >>stimulant to attract interest in the subject?  Something like the old
>> >>"Microbe Hunters" of yesteryear that grabed my interest in microbiology,
>> >>something with substance, just the right amount of good story telling,
>> >>and a healthy balance of scientific principles?  Book, CD-ROM, or net
>> >>hyper-link?      Thanks.
>How about "The Double Helix"?  I find it reads a bit like "The Microbe

Given the way The Double Helix treats Rosalind Franklin, I'd strongly 
recommend that it be classed as science fiction. In 1992, in sci.chem,
there was a protracted thread on the value of "The Double Helix", and 
my contributions have been slightly edited and repeated below. I was 
surprised to discover there were others who had similar opinions
- unfortunately I didn't keep their posts. People can, and will, make 
up their own minds, but please be aware that there is another side to
the story of the discovery of the double helix. If she hadn't died
tragically young, she might have shared the Nobel prize. I'm not
certain that it's a great idea to recycle old posts to the group,
especially as my newsreader then could not include the original
post, but they won't be on DejaNews.  

[ First post ]

In a fair world there would be a copy of "Rosalind Franklin & DNA" 
by Anne Sayre ( W.W. Norton and Company, 1975, ISBN  0 393 00868 1 ) 
next to " The Double Helix ". Watson claimed that his book was " a 
personal account ", thus permitting him to portray events as he saw 
them. Anne Sayre point out that his characterisation of Franklin was 
so wrong, that both Aaron Klug and Francis Crick pressed him to rectify 
his portrayal of Rosalind. Almost all the major participants appear to 
have problems with Watson's account of of Franklin and her research.

Francis Crick is quoted as saying that he regards " The Double Helix " as
" a contemptible pack of damned nonsense ". There is little doubt that
Franklin was close to the structure, contrary to what Watson suggests, she
had already proposed in a 1952 report that " ... the results suggest a
helical structure ( which must be very close packed ) containing probably
2, 3 or 4 co-axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit, and having the
phosphate groups near the outside". Watson attended one of Rosalind's
talks in November 1951 - her notes for the talk include " Big helix in
several chains, phosphates on outside ..." - he conveniently misremembered
this talk. In the spring of 1953 Watson and Crick produced their correct

Rosalind Franklin had severe communication problems with Maurice Wilkins,
who was also a group supervisor under Professor John Randall. She was never
Wilkins assistant. Wilkins passed her data without her consent to Watson.
Watson and Crick used the data without acknowledging her contribution.
Andre Lwoff suggests that Watson and Crick ( having received the data
unorthodoxly ) should have either confined their paper to the scheme of
base pairing, or offered her joint authorship for supplying the rest of
the information. Without her data they would have taken much longer, and
she was already so close... who knows?. For those that don't read Sayre's
book - Crick emerges with honour, Wilkins subsequently considers
himself  " naive " for having passed the data to Watson, and Watson - the
researcher who reports Franklin always wore spectacles, when she didn't.

[ second post - following up to somebody who claimed the original
Watson and Crick paper did acknowledge Rosalind Franklin's major
contribution, when in fact it acknowledged only her earlier, less
profound, contribution ]

Thank you for obtaining and citing the original paper. I am sorry that
I didn't make myself clear. I was referring ** only ** to the B-form
crystallographic data that was passed to Watson without Franklin's
knowledge or consent. This was the data that showed the helical structure
and provided several of the vital helical parameters.

Sayre writes " The vital information which was leading Rosalind towards
the correct solution, she had developed for herself, experimentally, and
all of it was available to Watson and Crick. From them she had nothing.
It is worth noting that Rosalind herself had no idea, ever, how crucial
her contributions were to the Watson-Crick structure, because she never
knew the extent to which her data had passed into their hands or had been
talked over with Wilkins.
In order to make exclusive claims, it is necessary to gather information
indirectly; and as Watson franckly admitted in The Double Helix, this is
exactly what he did. There are matters raised by this method of proceeding
that offer endless opportunity for scrutiny and debate. They are worthy
of scrutiny and debate."

Franklin apparently thought the acknowledgement was for her earlier data,
and the constructive criticisms she had made of earlier Watson and Crick
models. The issue is really about how Watson rewrote history according to
his impressions in The Double Helix, and how he protrayed the status,
intellect, and ability of Rosalind Franklin. Some of her data was
appropriated without her permission, and Watson attempts to justify this
on the basis that she was misinterpreting her own data - when if fact she
had already determined the helical structure of the B-Form of DNA.

I found Sayre's refutation of Watson's version of history compelling,
and would be interested in other opinions. This thread originated with a
question about Rosalind Franklin's role in the discovery of the structure
of DNA. Nobody disputes the brilliant perception of Watson and Crick -
the issue is whether Franklin's contribution was completely and correctly

[ end of earlier posts ]

          Bruce Hamilton

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