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.”
He seems to have learned that lesson for life. After all, his disdain for good manners had won him fame and fortune twice over: first as a scientist, then as an author. Why stop, now that he was a statesman of science? When I first met Watson, at a lunch in the late 1990s, he made outrageous claims about blacks in America’s inner cities. I argued with him. At length, he said to me, “You seem very concerned about principles. What’s a principle?”
Many other reporters had that kind of experience too. But Watson’s opinions about race, gender, and other such topics stayed more or less unpublished until, while promoting a memoir titled Avoid Boring People, he shared them, in some detail, with a reporter visiting Cold Spring Harbor. The fateful interview ran October 14, 2007, in The Times of London, under the headline “The Elementary DNA of Dr Watson.” The reaction was swift. Watson had to cancel his book tour and resign as head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He came in for ridicule a few months later when the Icelandic company deCODE Genetics reported hints in Watson’s own DNA of African ancestors.
Do Watson’s late years diminish The Double Helix? On the contrary: I’d say they only deepen its interest. For all its other virtues, the book’s real gift is its demonstration that science and story go well together. And a good story is always going to be human—lofty and ugly, high and low. Dr. Watson’s discovery is much easier to understand than Dr. Watson.
I’ve spent my career writing books about science and scientists. (One of them tells the story of a great biologist named Seymour Benzer, who is a footnote in The Double Helix.) They’re all driven by story as much as they are by science; and in every one I’ve struggled to make the story and the science seem all of a piece, as they do in the book I reviewed as a freshman, 44 years ago.