James Watson, writer

A bit of a gap since the last post here, but still after Francis Crick my thoughts turn to James Watson, the surviving member of the dynamic duo. So here’s a review of a book about him, not a biography as such, but a reflection on Watson the writer, his interesting (to me, especially) parallel career. I was one of the legion of biochemistry students who benefitted from reading Molecular Biology of the Gene (the second edition, around 1975). I still think it a remarkable piece of work. I think I read The Double Helix later, which would not be the normal order at all…

“Which winner of the Nobel prize has a voice so loud that it can actually produce a buzzing in the ears?

“Who is the top Cambridge scientist who gossips over dinner about the private lives of women undergraduates?

“Which eminent English biologist created a scandal at a costume party by dressing up as George Bernard Shaw and kissing all the girls behind the anonymity of a red scraggly beard?”

How deplorable! How appalling! Or so it seemed in the 1960s, anyway, when this would-be sensational book blurb was briefly appended to James Watson’s The Double Helix. Watson immediately sent a cable to his London publisher, protesting the grievous insult to his former co-worker Francis Crick, and threatening to sue unless all copies of the offending jacket were destroyed. One survives in the Watson archives at the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in upstate New York. The book survives in more than a million copies sold since.

Of the dynamic duo who presented the world with the structure of DNA half a century ago, the late Francis Crick has had a better press. James Watson was the brash, graceless, ambitious, American with an eye to the main chance, who saw the search for the structure as a race for Nobel glory, and would stop at nothing to win it. The exuberant Englishman was simply in love with the problem.  If Crick really did burst into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and announce to the lunchtime drinkers that the pair had discovered the secret of life, his tongue, one feels, was at least partly in cheek. Watson probably believed it.

That impression seemed to fit their later careers, too, which followed separate paths almost as soon as the famous joint manuscript went off to Nature. Crick stayed in Cambridge and did more great science, rather a lot of it. He shunned teaching, administration and most public honours, and when he retired from the Medical Research Council’s employ he simply carried on with his research – though he traded Cambridge for California.

Watson did all the things Crick did not. An alarmingly youthful (33) Harvard professor, director of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, promoter and founding director of the US Human Genome Programme, he lived deep in the politics of science.

It is too soon for a full assessment of either. But there is a more complex story to tell about both men. For Watson, an important part of that story is the way he fashioned his own image, and that of the new science of molecular biology. The dominant impression of the American, gawky, gauche, preoccupied with sexual as well as worldly success, but with little experience of either, comes from his own account of the Cambridge days in The Double Helix. The other character sketches in that “personal account of scientific discovery”, as the subtitle puts it, are often little more than cartoons – boastful Crick, scary Franklin, authoritative but avuncular Bragg. But however uncharitable he was toward others, Watson was equally unsparing of himself. He created a vivid impression of the state of mind of a startlingly young, intellectually arrogant but socially awkward interloper making his way among the British intelligentsia. It was the work not of Watson the scientist, but of Watson the writer.

In fact, surveying his working life, his writing is probably as important as his contributions in research or science advocacy. He may not have originated the scientific memoir, but he certainly reinvented it. A host of later books chronicling the vicissitudes of research and the tensions and rivalries within and between labs are mainly inspired by The Double Helix. And he was equally influential in a completely different sphere. Molecular Biology of the Gene, first issued in 1965, three years before the autobiographical book appeared, reinvented the undergraduate science textbook, and was another huge publishing success.

 He went on to instigate other textbooks, on cell biology and recombinant DNA, produced a rather laboured sequel to The Double Helix, and shone as an essayist, mostly in formal lectures or annual forewords to the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Report. It all adds up to an enviably successful second career.

Errol Friedberg’s modest book is a straightforward account of Watson’s writing life, mainly concerned with the content of his books, with a little background on their composition and a few comments on the reviews. It traces his development from a youthful admirer of Dos Passos, Isherwood and Graham Greene who found that “the characters in novels were much more real to me than my friends”, to the new Nobel Laureate trying to write a book about science as readable as The Great Gatsby, and trying to offer a clear account of the new biology to his students.

It is fascinating to be reminded how violently some readers objected to Watson writing about science as if he were writing a novel – and not always because they appeared in The Double Helix.  Friedberg records in detail the strained negotiations with those who did appear, most notably Crick, who argued forcefully against publication. It is a well-known story, but comes alive again here, with many original documents reproduced. And in case anyone felt that The Double Helix – already pored over and deconstructed more than any other scientific text, with the possible exception of that joint letter to Nature – was exhausted as a scholarly topic, Friedberg tantalizes with the information that the Watson archive includes “18 binders of material, containing almost as many versions of the manuscript”.

Delving into the successive versions is not his interest. He does reveal, though, that the famous opening sentence, “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”, survived  intact from the first draft, penned in 1962. This suggests that the long gestation and multiple drafts were more to do with worries about the politics and personal sensitivities than a struggle to find a style or a voice.

Much less studied, but surely inviting just as much close attention is Molecular Biology of the Gene. This developed out of Watson’s Harvard lectures. As a young man, he had read Schrodinger’s miniature classic, What is Life? Now, he suggested: “This is Life”.  The title didn’t make it, but it was a strong signal of the style of the book.

That style was declarative, focused on fundamental problems, key concepts and crucial experiments. And it was wonderfully clear, both in the writing, revised with feedback from non-biology-student readers, and the presentation. Many of the devices now taken for granted in such texts were proven here: the short, logically ordered sections building a single argument, the striking headings. And the illustrations, designed by the brilliant 18 year-old Keith Roberts who was involved in many subsequent projects, also laid down schematics of the molecular world which have become conventional because they were so effective.

One payoff from all this clarity and intellectual conviction was an unusual quality for a textbook. Molecular Biology of the Gene was exciting to read. The payoff from that was 100,000 copies sold. It had an influence on a generation of biology students akin to the Feynmann Lectures for  physicists. But unlike those volumes, Molecular Biology of the Gene has been continually updated, and the fifth edition has the now standard textbook accoutrements of co-authors, CD-Roms and web materials. Happily, it retains many of the virtues of the original, and a good measure of those virtues is that today this just looks like the way these things are done.

As well as memoir and pedagogy, Watson’s other writings range widely over science and politics, and Friedberg takes in these as well. Nowadays, Watson enjoys a reputation for being habitually politically incorrect, but so do many whose main concern is not to suffer fools. And anyone who sees him as a reactionary will have to account for sentiments like the following, in response to President Nixon’s “War on Cancer” in the 1970s. While many biologists simply welcomed a funding boost,

“We must wonder”, he wrote,  “to what extent the current American hysteria to conquer cancer within the next decade arises from the feeling that an infirmity which strikes without respect for social, racial or economic class must be an easier objective than a moral cancer which grows out of a nation’s incapacity to acknowledge the conveniently remote victims of its surgical bombing strikes”.

Aside from nuggets like this, the main value of Freidberg’s overview is putting The Double Helix back into the context of Watson’s lifetime of writing. There is virtually nothing here in the way of literary, or even critical analysis. The closest Friedberg comes to criticism is at the end of his account of Genes, Girls and Gamow, the long-delayed successor to The Double Helix. The book, which appeared in 2001, is another attempt to capture the person Watson once was, but suffers from the fact that both his life and his science were mired in uncertainty in the years after the triumph with DNA, and this seems to have been embodied, rather than transcended, in the style of the writing. Friedberg avers timidly that “opinions vary about how successful he was”.

It is perhaps the only one of Watson’s writing projects which was not a great success. When a collection of Watson’s essays were published in A Passion for DNA the New England Journal of Medicine hailed him as the “prose laureate” of the biomedical sciences. Lewis Thomas, Loren Eiseley and Edward Wilson may have better claims to that title. But, while Wilson comes close, Watson has been a more influential writer than any of them. Friedberg’s book is a convenient reminder of the range and importance of his work, and an invitation to others to engage with it anew.  (2005)

(The Writing Life of J.D. Watson

By Errol C. Friedberg

Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press)


2 thoughts on “James Watson, writer

  1. Pingback: Mightier Than His Microscope | The Penn Ave Post

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