Even though Watson was pushing 40 when he wrote the book, he tells it all (after that first scene in the Alps) in the voice of the brash, socially awkward young man he was in his early twenties. So we get high-spirited reports on the day-to-day life of a scientist in Cambridge. We hear about the disgusting food in the dining halls (“brown soup, stringy meat, and heavy pudding”) and about “the poison put out by the local Indian and Cypriote establishments.” We hear about tennis, parties, girls, “sherry with girls.” He gets surprisingly frank. We see Watson trying to put the naked Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy out of his mind and concentrate on chemical bonds.
Watson imparts solid lessons in chemistry along the way. When you have a strong story, you can weave in a lot of science without your readers rebelling. The false starts and wrong turns in the research are all brilliantly described. The climactic scene where Watson assembles his model at the lab on Saturday morning, February 28, 1953, is one of the great eureka moments in the history of science. He fusses with some pieces of stiff cardboard, fiddling them together on his desktop, and, suddenly, there it is—the most elegant molecule he’s ever seen, a beautiful rising shape like a spiral staircase: the double helix.
And the book’s ending is almost as good as the beginning. We leave the wan young man in Paris feeling tired and a bit old. He was about to celebrate his birthday. There was a party ahead. “But now I was alone, looking at the long-haired girls near Saint-Germain-des-Prés and knowing they were not for me. I was twenty-five and too old to be unusual.”
Back in that first scene, in the Alps, he had been preparing for an ascent. Now the race was over. He had won, and he was coming down.
“Who could possibly want to read stuff like this?” Crick wondered, when Watson showed him a chapter of the work in progress in a little restaurant near Harvard Square. Since their discovery, the two men had become famous in their field. (“Rather than believe that Watson and Crick made the DNA structure, I would rather stress that the structure made Watson and Crick,” wrote Crick later on.) They had won a Nobel Prize (which they shared with Maurice Wilkins) in 1962. Now, with their careers and reputations secured, Crick didn’t think Watson’s story was an appropriate one to tell. Neither did Wilkins. Neither did the molecular biologist Gunther Stent, who, after reading an early draft of Honest Jim, predicted that nobody would ever buy it. The volumes on their coffee tables were the same as my dad’s. In most of those books, it was the science that was important; the grubby personal details were unfit to print.
When the editor of Harvard University Press acquired Watson’s memoir, Crick and Wilkins both campaigned to block its publication. In the spring of 1967, Crick composed a furious six-page letter addressed to Watson, the editor of the press, the president of Harvard, and others, writing, “Should you persist in regarding your book as history I should add that it shows such a naive and egotistical view of the subject as to be scarcely credible.” He said Watson had omitted “any intellectual content….Your view of history is that found in the lower class of women’s magazines.” In the end, Harvard rejected the manuscript, which Watson promptly gave to a commercial publisher. On February 15, 1968, the story hit the front page of The New York Times, under the headline, “A Book That Couldn’t Go to Harvard.”
The Double Helix was published on February 26, 1968, 15 years after Watson’s eureka moment, almost to the day. As a high school freshman, I thought the story was purely terrific. Watson was smart and talented, he knew what his elders didn’t, and he won the prize. I’m sure even his trouble with girls seemed sympathetic. He holds onto the box of chocolates at the party? Sure. He likes to imagine himself becoming famous? Of course. He has to fight to keep Hedy Lamarr out of his mind while he studies? Naturally.