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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.3 (2004) 443-448
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Rosy and Jim
the mystery of the double helix
Bernard S. Strauss
Department ofMolecular Genetics and Cell Biology,
920 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL 60637.
Rosalind Franklin (a.k.a. Rosy—but not to her face) was a distinguished crystallographer who made important contributions to at least three different fields: the molecular structure of coals, of DNA, and of viruses. At the close of her life she was widely respected for her contributions to the virus field and counted among her friends and scientific confidants some of the major figures in contemporary biology, including Francis Crick. One of her young coworkers, Aaron Klug, was awarded the Nobel Prize for work he started with her. She viewed her contribution to the elucidation of the DNA structure as important but not central to her career and was not dissatisfied with the recognition that work had obtained. Her rage was at the incurable cancer that ended her life at the age of 38.
That she is now widely recognized as a victim of human injustice is the result of the writings ofJames Dewey Watson. Oddly enough, Watson figures as a major player in the perpetration of the injustice. An important question posed by two new books—Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin and Victor K. McElheny's [End Page 443] Watson and DNA—is why Watson publicized Rosalind Franklin's role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, since without his harsh portrait of "Rosy" in his 1968 book The Double Helix, the importance of her contribution would not have been widely recognized (Crease 2003). Without the publication ofWatson's best-selling memoir, Ann Sayre (1975) would not have been infuriated enough to write her biography of Franklin, and the events (which only Watson's confessional brings to light) would not have kept the case before the (scientific) public. Without Watson's book there would not have been two full-fledged biographies of Rosalind Franklin, nor would she be a symbol of the prejudice against women in science.
It is hard to know whether the issues raised in the two books reviewed here are of interest to the general public, but to scientists (and especially geneticists) they are fascinating. The fascination comes from both our love of gossip and our preoccupation with priority. Watson's memoir The Double Helix reads like a novel—sort of a breezy version of a novel by C. P. Snow (I am chagrined at having to remind the readers that Snow was an important writer who dealt with science and public affairs 30 years ago). However, the importance for biologists of knowing the structure of DNA remains overwhelming. I have told the following story often, including once in the pages of this journal (Strauss 2000). One night during the 1960s, I was walking with a graduate student who suddenly realized from our conversation that I had earned my degree before the complementary structure of DNA was understood. He stopped in his tracks and asked me very seriously, "But how did you think?" The question is reasonable enough to anyone working in molecular biology. Watson's contribution to the way all biologists think has, if anything, been enlarged by his later contribution to the genome project. The unifying principle of biology is the idea of evolution; our knowledge of the structure of the genomes of a plethora of organisms, including our own genome, has transformed the study of evolution by permitting comparison of the sequences of the different DNAs. The Watson-Crick structure of DNA is now central to the study of both the function of present-day organisms and of their relationships, past and present. It is arguably the most important contribution to biology of the 20th century, and...