Twists in the Tale of the Great DNA Discovery

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Anyone seeking to understand modern biology and genomics could do much worse than start with the discovery of the structure of DNA, on which almost everything else is based. The classic account of the discovery, “The Double Helix,” by James D. Watson, was first published in 1968 and has now been reissued in an annotated and illustrated edition.

Strangely for the account of a great discovery, Dr. Watson’s book contains not a solemn or pompous word. It breezes along, full of gossipy vignettes, many of them at the expense of Francis Crick, his partner in pursuit of DNA. (“For 35 years he had not stopped talking and almost nothing of fundamental value had emerged.”) Reviewers noted, not with the intent to praise, that the book read more like a novel than history.

“The book is not a history of the discovery of DNA, as you claim in the preface. Instead it is a fragment of your autobiography,” Crick wrote to him in a furious attempt to suppress its publication. “Anything which concerns you and your reactions, apparently, is historically relevant, and anything else is thought not to matter. ... If you publish your book now, in the teeth of my opposition, history will condemn you.”...

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