In Cold Spring Harbor’s Blackford Bar, one evening in June 2010, Sydney Brenner suggested looking through the papers he had recently donated to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives. Among his own papers were, he knew, some of Francis Crick’s correspondence that had become muddled in with his during the 20 years they had shared an office in Cambridge. A few days later we discovered that the trove included letters to and from Crick written during the period when he and Jim Watson at Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London, were searching for the structure of DNA.
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Mislaid some 50 years earlier (“thrown out by an over efficient secretary,” Crick believed), these letters had escaped the attention of the historians of molecular biology who first started looking into this new field in the mid-1960s. The letters provided some new insights into the proceedings, and in particular the personal relationships of the protagonists in the DNA story.
The most celebrated account of that story is The Double Helix, Watson’s novelistic version of the events as they appeared to a 23-year-old American in Cambridge in the early 1950s. Written not in the tone of a formal autobiography nor in the measured language of the historian, his racy and thrillerlike telling was reviled by some and praised by many upon publication in 1968.
In writing our article on the lost Crick correspondence, we naturally reread The Double Helix. We were struck by how Watson’s account in the book accurately represented the vivid, contemporary descriptions of people and events found in the letters, and not just those of Crick and Wilkins, but Watson’s own. The social whirl of parties, tennis, French lessons, holidays, and other events that featured prominently in the book—the “gossip,” as Crick characterized it—were recorded in the weekly letters Watson wrote to his sister Elizabeth during his time in Cambridge. And the science covered in the book was also discussed in contemporary letters to Max Delbrück and other friends, and not just the DNA work, but Watson’s research on bacterial genetics and tobacco mosaic virus, projects that figure prominently in the story. In all of this contemporary correspondence, the character of Watson himself—the brash, self-confident yet at times also self-deprecating, young man portrayed in his book—was transparent. We became intrigued to see all the contemporary accounts we could find—not just those revealed in the letters of Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, but of Franklin, Linus Pauling, and others as well.
Free Books Online PDF: The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix – 2012