Long ago, unfortunately, I lost my copy of whatever it was I wrote for The Laureate. But many of the other reviews that appeared that year have been collected and preserved in the Norton Critical Edition of The Double Helix. I find it interesting now to see what reviewers were thinking on higher floors in the towers of academia. Most of them were outraged. The molecular biologist Robert L. Sinsheimer found Watson’s worldview “unbelievably mean in spirit, filled with the distorted and cruel perceptions of childish insecurity.” The evolutionary biologist Richard S. Lewontin called the book a paradox. “The Nobel Prize has acquired virtue by being awarded to virtuous men by virtuous men. Its total value is in its image. Yet, having craved and acquired it, Watson devalues it, debasing the currency of his own life.”
Not every reviewer was angry. The physicist who reviewed the book for Life wrote that Watson’s book “should kill the myth that great science must be cold, impersonal or detached.” On the other hand, the physiologist who reviewed the book for Scientific American declared that Watson had proven himself to be just that: “His characteristics are essentially cold logic, hypersensitivity and lack of affectivity.” He added, “May God protect us from such friends.”
Both of those reviews mentioned the scene in the Alps, and both quoted Seeds’s line, “How is Honest Jim?” One reviewer concluded, “How’s Honest Jim? Fine, just fine.” The other reviewer ended cuttingly: “Yes, how is Honest Jim?”
The book made Watson a celebrity. It spent 18 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list; it was translated into at least 17 languages. Watson left Harvard to direct the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, on Long Island, and turned it into one of the world’s great research centers. Meanwhile, many of the people he’d offended back in Cambridge were mad all over again.
Crick had come off pretty well in the book, though he didn’t think so himself. He hated the way Watson had framed their story as a sordid race for fame and glory, and spent years plotting revenge with his lab mates, dreaming up titles and zingers for his own memoir. He thought he might call it The Loose Screw, and joked about how he might start his Chapter One, “Jim was always clumsy with his hands. One had only to see him peel an orange….” (When Crick finally got around to writing his own memoir, What Mad Pursuit, he chose a quiet, restrained beginning. You realize how much you love a good story like Watson’s when you read Crick’s doggedly plain first line: “The main purpose of this book is to set out some of my experiences before and during the classical period of molecular biology….”)
Other biologists in the story had to live their whole lives in the twisted shadow of the double helix. The book’s most famous victim is Rosalind Franklin, who died ten years before it appeared. Her early death in 1958 cheated her of her chance to tell her side of the story (and of any chance to share the Nobel Prize). Many others, whose work had laid the foundations for Watson and Crick’s discovery, suffered because they weren’t in the book at all. Watson’s book was such a powerful story that anyone who was left out of it was relegated to a footnote forever after.
I visited Mac McCarty on June 29, 2000. He was the last survivor of the team at Rockefeller that had discovered that genes are made of DNA. He was 89 years old, and sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the living room, recounting his discovery in front of big picture windows overlooking high rises and the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge.
Two days before, at the White House, President Clinton had announced the completion of the Human Genome Project. Mac’s wife, Marge, had a copy of The New York Times in the foyer, open to the headline, “Reading the Book of Life: A Historic Quest; Double Landmarks for Watson: Helix and Genome. The Times had also run a sidebar with a timeline of discovery. She showed me where Mac appeared in the timeline: two little lines. “1944: Researchers at the Rockefeller Institute prove that genes are made of deoxyribonucleic acid.” Suddenly, Marge, who had been stewing all afternoon, could no longer contain her anger.
“Researchers!” she cried. “What the shit is that? He’s not Mr. Researcher!”
In some ways, Watson was a victim of his book too. He’d been rewarded so spectacularly for his behavior in his early twenties. Among other things, he had learned to be flippant at Cambridge, he writes. He saw that “success in Cambridge conversation frequently came from saying something preposterous, hoping that someone would take you seriously.”