How to Design a Better Double Helix

November 6, 2012

 By Kevin Davies  

November 6, 2012 | The Double Helix by James D. Watson is not merely a magnificent scientific detective story but one of the classics of 20th century literature. The book was originally published in 1968, six years after Watson shared the Nobel Prize with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, and despite the objections of many principals in the saga. Watson’s gripping, painfully honest account of the quest to puzzle the structure of DNA in the face of mass distractions—formidable American competition, comely Cambridge University co-eds, inedible English food and stifling British bureaucracy—has gone on to sell more than 1 million copies. One reviewer said Watson deserved “a second Nobel gong” for literature. My favorite line follows Watson’s epiphany that DNA was surely a double helix. “Francis would have to agree,” Watson wrote. “Even though he was a physicist, he knew that important biological objects come in pairs.” (See our interview with Watson on the 50th anniversary of the double helix, “Genes, Girls and Honest Jim.”)  

So how does one improve upon a classic? One doesn’t try. But inspired by the serendipitous discovery of the lost correspondence of Francis Crick a few years ago (accidentally mixed in with Sydney Brenner’s archives), two veteran Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory faculty, Alexander Gann (editorial director, Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press) and Jan Witkowski (executive director, Banbury Center), decided to produce an enhanced edition of the book, which is published this week in conjunction with Simon & Schuster. The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix retains Watson’s original text intact, but almost every page is appended with rich sources of new information, anecdotes and illustrations, including a previously unpublished chapter by Watson and new interviews with key players such as Raymond Gosling, Rosalind Franklin’s student who took the crucial Photograph 51 of crystalline DNA.  

On the eve of publication, Bio-IT World invited the editors of the new book, Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski, to discuss the background to the project and preview some of the treasures within. 


Watson and Kevin Davies, 2011 

  Bio-IT World: Jan, Alex—how did the idea to annotate and illustrate The Double Helix first come about?  


Gann/Witkowski: Sydney Brenner had pointed us to correspondence in his papers, recently donated to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archive, between Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins dating to the period of the discovery of the double helix. We used these letters and other data to write a paper that was published in Nature in 2010, “The lost correspondence of Francis Crick.” We re-read The Double Helix and saw the potential for writing commentary on Jim’s original text, providing readers with information about the many characters Jim mentions and the events he describes. We had expected that this would be fun to do and be done quite quickly. It was certainly fun to do but the project took on a life of its own and by the time we had finished, we had added over 250 annotations and a similar number of new figures. 

The original book is of course a classic. Have you edited the main text in any way? 

Gann/Witkowski: No. The original text is unchanged, and laid out on the page so that it can still be read in its original form. The larger trim-size has enabled us to add annotations and figures around the text, and some topics are dealt with at greater length in appendices. In a few places we have drawn attention to minor errors of fact in the original by adding suitable annotations. Jim’s opinions are left unchanged. 

The new edition includes a previously unpublished chapter written by Watson. What's the story behind that? 

Gann/Witkowski: In looking through a late version of the original manuscript, we found a chapter that didn’t appear in the published book. It describes a trip Watson took to the Alps in the middle of the story—the summer of 1952. The chapter has no new scientific interest—indeed, it declares as much in the opening sentences: “In August I stopped chasing DNA. Paula, a young Italian girl, was the most attractive object in the Italian alpine village of Chiareggio…” It is nevertheless a charming piece. We showed it to Watson, who had until then completely forgotten about it. Re-reading it he recalled how lovely the week had been, and agreed it would be a nice thing to add to this edition (where it appears as an appendix). 

What were your main sources for the book? Did personal archives play an important role? 

Gann/Witkowski: Yes, we made extensive use of Watson’s archives, including the weekly letters he sent to his sister during the time he was in Cambridge. But we also took from the archives of the other major players in the story: Crick, Wilkins, Linus Pauling, and Rosalind Franklin. And further afield, those of Delbruck and Luria, recipients of letters from Watson on scientific matters during this period. Individuals and other institutions were generous with their time and in providing other materials. Indeed, one delightful feature of the project was contacting individuals who played a part in Jim’s story, including, for example, Bertrand Fourcade, who was described by Jim as the “most beautiful male” in Cambridge! 

What are some of the more illuminating or surprising insights that you gleaned during your research on the book?  

Gann/Witkowski: What impresses us most, looking at the completed book, is not so much individual revelations, but the material we have added—from facsimile documents and letters, extracts from correspondence, biographies and memoirs, numerous contemporary photographs of people and places from the story, as well as much historical and scientific background information—complements and enriches Jim’s text. But to give examples of two general categories of revelation that most struck us. One is that the relationships between the main characters, as revealed in correspondence of the time—their styles and interactions—are very true to the descriptions of them given in the book. Jim’s treatment of the DNA story is novelistic but he did not, as some suggest, make things up so as to have a good story. Another insight concerns the many other characters that appeared in the original book, many unrelated to the central scientific story. Watson often provides only the briefest of information, sometimes not even identifying the most intriguing of minor characters. We don’t get to learn the interesting story of the “local doctor” who had rowing oars mounted on the wall of his surgery, or the identity of the “antiquarian architect” who kept his house free of gas and electricity. Who were these people? 

Does the new book shed any new light on Watson's relationship with—or view of—Rosalind Franklin? 

Gann/Witkowski: The letters written by the main characters—Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin—do mesh well with the portrayal of these characters and their relationships in the book. Watson and Crick’s view of Franklin at the time was colored by the hard time Wilkins had with her. It should be remembered that Watson only met Franklin perhaps three times over the course of the story, and Crick maybe only once—certainly they didn’t know her well. But they often heard news of her from Wilkins, and, being a friend, they tended to sympathize with him. On Franklin’s side, her dislike of King’s College and her colleagues is made vivid in her contemporary correspondence. All in all, the dysfunctional nature of the Wilkins-Franklin relationship is very much as Watson describes it in his book.  

What do you think will be the main appeal for readers who have probably read the original book multiple times? 

Gann/Witkowski: The main appeal of the book to a reader who knows the original text is the wide range of additional material—from amusing asides to serious documentation about the central events—all of which we think will engage the reader. Who, for example, would have thought that Wilkins was under surveillance by MI5, his mail opened and his phone tapped? And surely every reader of the original book, whether new or familiar with the story, has wondered about the novel Watson and Crick read recounting the sexual indiscretions of Cambridge dons? 

The original Double Helix has sold 1 million copies. What are your expectations for the illustrated edition?! 

Gann/Witkowski: Alex says “fewer” and Jan says “more”! 

What is Watson’s impression of the new book?  

Gann/Witkowski: Jim encouraged us to undertake the project, but played no active role in putting the material together. So when he first saw the completed pages, he was delighted and amazed by two things. First, that he had included so many characters and events incidental to the main story, many of which he had forgotten, and, second, that we had been able to uncover so much information about these, setting them in the context of his story and the Cambridge of the early 1950s. It also reawakened his memories, leading to new lines of inquiry for us to pursue, mainly about minor but fascinating characters. 

In closing, is there anything else you'd like to share about the project? 

Gann/Witkowski: One striking feature we haven’t mentioned is the inclusion of a number of pieces written by Ray Gosling especially for this edition. He was the graduate student who worked with both Franklin and Wilkins at this time, who took the two most famous X-ray diffraction photos of DNA, and who has not previously given his own account of most of the events in this story. So we have been able to draw on the accounts of all the main players in The Double Helix—the memoirs of Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, the memories of Gosling, and the contemporary documents of Franklin, Perutz, Kendrew, Pauling, Luria, Delbruck, Linus and Peter Pauling—to create a story line that we think makes fascinating reading in conjunction with Jim’s original story.  

The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix by James D. Watson (edited by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski)  is published on November 6 by Simon & Schuster in hardcover and as an eBook.