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The Double Helix
by James Watson
I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood. Perhaps in other company he is that way, but I have never had reason so to judge him. It has nothing to do with his present fame. Already he is much talked about, usually with reverence, and someday he may be considered in the category of Rutherford or Bohr. But this was not true when, in the fall of 1951, I came to the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University to join a small group of physicists and chemists working on the three-dimensional structures of proteins. At that time he was thirty-five, yet almost totally unknown. Although some of his closest colleagues realized the value of his quick, penetrating mind and frequently sought his advice, he was often not appreciated, and most people thought he talked too much …
It was [biophysicist Maurice] Wilkins who had first excited me about X-ray work on DNA. This happened at Naples when a small scientific meeting was held on the structures of the large molecules found in living cells. Then it was the spring of 1951, before I knew of Francis Crick’s existence. Already I was much involved with DNA, since I was in Europe on a postdoctoral fellowship to learn its biochemistry. My interest in DNA had grown out of a desire, first picked up while a senior in college, to learn what the gene was. Later, in graduate school at Indiana University, it was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry. This wish partially arose from laziness since, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I was principally interested in birds and managed to avoid taking any chemistry or physics courses which looked of even medium difficulty. Briefly, the Indiana biochemists encouraged me to learn organic chemistry, but after I used a Bunsen burner to warm up some benzene, I was relieved from further true chemistry. It was safer to turn out an uneducated Ph.D. than to risk another explosion …
From my first day in [biochemist Max Perutz’s lab at Cambridge University] I knew I would not leave Cambridge for a long time. Departing would be idiocy, for I had immediately discovered the fun of talking to Francis Crick. Finding someone in Max’s lab who knew that DNA was more important than proteins was real luck … Our lunch conversations quickly centered on how genes were put together. Within a few days after my arrival, we knew what to do: imitate Linus Pauling [discoverer of the -helix] and beat him at his own game …
The key to Linus’ success was his reliance on the simple laws of structural chemistry. The -helix had not been found by only staring at X-ray pictures; the essential trick, instead, was to ask which atoms like to sit next to each other. In place of pencil and paper, the main working tools were a set of molecular models superficially resembling the toys of preschool children.
We could thus see no reason why we should not solve DNA in the same way. All we had to do was to construct a set of molecular models and begin to play—with luck, the structure would be a helix.
Vol. 221, No. 1, pp. 76–99
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