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It is the famous lightbulb-going-off story every school kid learns: How James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, cementing their place in scientific history. But as William Brangham explains, a new book titled "The Secret of Life" paints a more troubling picture of how this famous discovery came about, and why scientist Rosalind Franklin also deserved credit.
It's the famous lightbulb-going-off story every school kid learns, how James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and cemented their place in scientific history.
But, as William Brangham explains, a new book paints a more troubling picture of how this famous discovery came about, and who else deserves some credit.
Dr. Howard Markel, Author, "The Secret of Life": We are at the National Academy of Sciences, which is where the most celebrated scientists in America are members. But it was for a long time an old boys' club.
And also an old white boys' club.
Dr. Howard Markel:
An old white boys' club with very gray. That's because that's the way science was socially constructed.
Howard Markel is a doctor and medical historian, and in his new book, "The Secret of Life," he tells the famous story of James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA, which revolutionized the study of genetics.
That catapulted them into the pantheon of great scientists like Albert Einstein.
And I will bet, if you are asked to name some Nobel Prize winners, I think everyone could say Einstein, but next would probably come Watson and Crick in terms of fame.
But in the book, Markel tells how Watson's and Crick's discovery was based in part on the work of a researcher named Rosalind Franklin and how Franklin's contribution was downplayed and denied for years.
It's what Markel calls one of the most egregious ripoffs in the history of science. "The Secret of Life" opens with that famous moment in 1953 in Cambridge, England, when Watson and Crick have just made their discovery and rush to share it with the world.
And they ran from the Cavendish Laboratory out towards Free School Lane 100 feet, literally 100 steps, I counted, to the Eagle Pub, which was a favorite watering hole of many Cambridge students and professors.
And the way Watson described it: Crick winged into the Eagle and said, we have discovered the secret of life.
A lot of people think that they do know this story, but remind us of these two central characters. Who were these guys?
Well, Watson was a young postdoctoral student. He had gotten his Ph.D. at Indiana, got his B.A. at UChicago. He was DNA-crazy, long before other people thought DNA was the genetic principle.
Now, Crick was a full time graduate student, a permanent graduate student, as we used to call them. He was very loud. He had a loud laugh and he was brilliant. And he was so brilliant, he would figure out your research questions before you did. So nobody really wanted to talk to him.
Before we get to the central tension of your book, can you just remind people who haven't followed the science why their breakthrough was so astronomical and so important?
Prior to 1953, no one really understood heredity, genetics, how we pass on traits to our children or our grandchildren, not to mention all the issues that DNA led to in terms of RNA and mRNA viruses and vaccines and all the other stuff that we use for medicine today.
Revolutionary things to this day.
Yes, I call it a light switch moment, because once that switch was turned on, nothing was ever the same. It changed everything. It was a major discovery.
The problem is that it wasn't entirely their discovery.
Rosalind Franklin knew and interacted with Watson and Crick back in the 1950s. She was at nearby King's College, doing similar DNA research. She was an expert in X-ray crystallography, the use of reflected X-rays and complex calculations to work out the structure of incredibly small objects.
Markel documents how, without her knowledge, James Watson was shown one of her key X-ray diffraction patterns, and Crick was shown one of her progress reports. Armed with that information, the two men figured out that DNA's structure had to be a double helix, as Francis Crick later admitted.
He said: We didn't do the double helix because things go in pairs or something dreamy like that. We did it for a reason, because we had Rosalind's data.
The reality is, is that, if life was fair, which it's not, it would be called the Watson-Crick-Franklin model.
Is that right? Do you think that it's at all clear that they would have gotten there absent her data?
They absolutely would not. It would have been very hard for them. They might have eventually.
The more interesting question is that Francis Crick said: Of course, Rosalind would have figured it out in a few weeks. It's just that we figured it out faster.
You also document in your book a very extensive campaign that those two gentlemen and others went to hide the fact that her data had been this aha moment for them.
Why were they so set on denying her that recognition?
I think they never thought of Rosalind as a serious competitor of their level. I think it was chauvinism to the nth degree and was very common in academic science on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean at that time.
Because as you do document in the book, she was a tough person. She didn't suffer fools. She was quick to point out your mistakes.
And she wasn't necessarily the nicest person in the world.
But, as you also say, had she been a man, those character traits would have just been written off as eccentricities, whereas, with her, they condemned her for it.
Yes, she didn't suffer fools gladly. She was very intense in her work and didn't like to be bothered. Like a lot of scholars, they get almost jarred when somebody interrupts them. And that was part of her — that's how she worked, you know, because she really did have to focus on things.
She was a difficult person. That said, these other guys were rather difficult and odious in their behavior.
There are so many heartbreaking moments in this book. Rosalind dies of cancer, likely, maybe because of the work she was doing and being exposed to X-rays.
She also — at 38.
She also doesn't really find out how central her data was to their discovery and their Nobel Prize.
And she doesn't find out about this campaign that was waged to hide that from her.
No. Right, because she died only five years after the events.
This conspiracy — and I call it that, because it wasn't just Watson and Crick. Their bosses were involved, too. And I asked her sister, Jenifer Glynn, about this a few years ago. And she said: Oh, if Rosalind had known, there would have been a big fight over that. Of that, I am sure.
William Brangham At the very end of your book — and I do not want to give this ending away, but after building this very convincing case of the stolen data and the cover-up of the theft, as you put it, you are able to confront James Watson and put these questions to him.
It's a very, very striking ending.
It's the best ending of any book I have ever written.
And I guarantee it will keep you on the edge of your seat, as it kept me on mine. I challenged him about the whole Rosalind Franklin credit issue. His response was not pleasant…
To say the least.
… and was quite definitive in his mind. I don't agree with it. But it was an interesting moment in my interviewing career, yes.
We will leave it to the readers to see.
The book is "The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix."
Howard Markel, always great to see you.
Always good to see you.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Jason Kane is a PBS NewsHour producer, focusing on health care and national affairs.
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