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What reading The Double Helix and The Dark Lady of DNA can teach students (and their teachers) about science.

Very often science is taught in schools devoid of the people and events behind the research. Yet there is much that can be discovered about the nature of science when we examine the lives of scientists. Recently I read James Watson's The Double Helix and Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin, Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady of DNA. It occurred to me that reviewing both books could show how ideas in science can overlap and/or conflict. It might also suggest ways that teachers might use this information in the classroom.


The Double Helix is James Watson's utobiographical account of the vents leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery. Published in 1968, Watson's account has raised many objections since its first draft, notably from many of the characters mentioned in the book (Maddox, 2002). Despite, or perhaps because of, the criticisms and controversies it generated, the book became a best seller and has been lauded for its portrayal of the 'human side' of science. It was Watson's unflattering depiction of Rosalind Franklin in his account that first brought attention to the critical contributions of Franklin to Watson and Crick's discovery (Elkin, 2003; Maddox, 2002). Personally, his memoir triggered my interest to find out about the real 'Rosy' (as she was referred to by Watson), and thus I went on to read Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin, Rosalind Franklin--The Dark Lady of DNA.

The Double Helix

by James D. Watson


The Double Helix is a light-hearted, enjoyable read that allows one a peek into James Watson's life as a young scientist. Medawar, in his review of the book, notes that 'Watson displays but does not observe himself' (in Stent, 1968, p. 183). Indeed, in his writing, Watson reveals much about his character to us, but not everyone will like what he reveals. What makes the book appealing is his narrative style--he writes with an arrogant frankness on what he felt and thought at that time, seemingly without any regard as to how others might feel. Watson did however, write a preface to somewhat mitigate the effect of his writing, pointing out that though the story might appear 'one-sided and unfair' it aimed to represent the way he saw things then. He claims that the book was his attempt to recreate his first impressions of the events and people, rather than a factual record. Watson's descriptions of and remarks about many of the characters in the book are often flippant, and even rude. For example, he declares that many scientists are 'cantankerous fools who unfailingly backed the wrong horses', and are 'not only narrow-minded, but also just stupid' (p. 24). His first comment about Rosalind Franklin was that, at thirty one, her dress sense 'showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents', and that it was easy to imagine her 'the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men' (p. 26). A PhD before his 23rd birthday had perhaps given Watson a certain cockiness in his manner and attitude. A telling episode is his hasty announcement to Max Delbruck of having devised a 'beautiful DNA structure' before he had even discussed the idea with Crick (p. 148). Even at the early stage of the research when they had received information about the water content in DNA after attending Rosalind's lecture, Watson and Crick were so confident that they could crack the code they were already talking about their 'impending triumph' (p. 69). The 'triumph' is the highlight of the book; the series of events leading to Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA. In his account, Watson captures the feverish excitement of the race to beat Linus Pauling to that discovery. At the same time he gives us an insight into how 'great minds' work, and the creativity and intuition needed to make that inspirational leap towards the solution to a puzzle that had previously stumped scientists. The scientific method is also clearly demonstrated here--how Watson and Crick used hypothesis, inference, and experimental data to revise their earlier hypothesis, and so on, to finally arrive at the solution. But what turned this series of events into an even greater drama were the implicit moral dilemmas:
   Is it justifiable to work on (and solve)
   someone else's long-standing problem
   when the solution seems so clear to
   oneself but not to the other, especially
   when that someone is a friend? Is it
   all right to use someone else's data
   without his/her consent and not openly
   acknowledging it, again when the solution
   seems clear to oneself but not the other?

As Merton (in Stent, 1968) points out, by showing 'a variety and confusion of motives, in which the objective of finding the structure of DNA is intertwined with the tormenting pleasures of competition, contest and reward' (p. 168) this book successfully dispels the myth of science as a dispassionate discipline.

Maddox (2002) suggests that 'a cloud of guilt' hovers over Watson's tale from the very first page where Watson describes his meeting with Willy Seeds, a colleague of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin from King's College. Seeds did not stop to chat but instead simply remarked, 'How's Honest Jim?' Watson in fact titled his draft copy of The Double Helix 'Honest Jim'. Throughout his account, Watson also appears to be justifying his (and Crick's) actions. For example, in his account, Watson maintains that Rosalind Franklin was against the helical theory: 'to her mind there was not a shred of evidence that DNA was helical' (p. 79); 'She gave no sign, however, of liking helices any better' (p. 117). Therefore to 'rescue' DNA from the clutches of their rival, Linus Pauling, the only choice was to seize the problem and solve it themselves.

Without doubt the greatest controversy the book generated was the use of Rosalind Franklin's experimental data without her knowledge. Watson's unfavourable portrait of Rosalind raised many objections especially since she was no longer able to defend herself; Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in 1958.

An especially dramatic scene in the book takes place in Franklin's King's College laboratory. It is Watson's meeting with Rosalind to show her Pauling's erroneous attempt at the structure. On Rosalind's refusal to accept his argument that the structure is helical, he proclaims: 'I was more aware of her data than she realised ... I decided to risk a full explosion. Without further hesitation I implied that she was incompetent in interpreting X-ray pictures' (p. 131).

The importance of Rosalind's data was nevertheless indirectly acknowledged in Watson's account. Speculating whether Linus Pauling would arrive at the solution before them, he observes:

'... the more we thought about DNA chemistry, the more unlikely seemed the possibility that even Linus could pick off the structure in total ignorance of the work at King's' (p. 125);

and when he was shown Rosalind's X-ray photo (that critical Photograph 51), he states,

"The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race" (p. 132).

The closest to a direct acknowledgement by Watson of the importance of Rosalind's data was made forty-six years later, when he conceded, 'the Franklin photograph was the key event' (Maddox, 2002, p. 316).

It is probably appropriate that we now look at the story from another point of view, which thus brings us to the Dark Lady herself ...

Rosalind Franklin

The Dark Lady of DNA

by Brenda Maddox


In her acknowledgements, Brenda Maddox suggests that many who knew Rosalind Franklin were willing to assist her in writing Rosalind's biography, probably because of their sincere wish to 'help set a tangled record straight' (p. xiii). Indeed, her biography was very much welcomed as it gives a balanced picture of a woman many felt had been grossly misrepresented. I very much agree with Hamer (2002) who describes it in his review as a 'balanced, nuanced and informed version of the tale'. In the light of Watson's portrayal of Rosalind, Maddox's biography very much moved and inspired me. As Maddox points out, there is indeed 'more to her (Rosalind's) life than the twenty-seven unhappy months at King's College' (p. xviii). Rosalind's life and character aside, the meticulous and vast amount of research that Maddox must have put in to produce such a comprehensive account is really impressive. She supports her account with numerous interviews, letters, published and unpublished manuscripts, as well as Rosalind's lab notebooks. All this is carefully indexed at the end.

Maddox does not try to paint a portrait of Rosalind that is unduly complimentary. Instead, she presents both sides of Rosalind's character so that the reader can have the whole picture regarding the woman who had been caricatured by Watson (1968) as dowdy and 'belligerent', and who 'had to go or be put in her place' (p. 26).

The book is divided into three parts, representing three phases of Rosalind's life: Part One chronicles her life before King's College; Part Two gives an account of her time at King's; Part Three describes her life after leaving King's. An epilogue at the end explores the issue of Watson's distorted representation of Rosalind in The Double Helix. Here Maddox looks into the issue of acknowledgement of Rosalind's data, and the possible reasons as to why Rosalind failed to solve the DNA puzzle herself.

Though it might appear as if Franklin's time at King's is the central focus of the book from this arrangement, Maddox has given as much attention to all three sections and I have to say that they each impacted on me in different ways. In Part One I was awakened to the fascinating person that Rosalind was; Part Two gave me another perspective to the events leading to that landmark discovery, as opposed to Watson's narrative; and the account of the events up to Franklin's tragic death in Part Three, moved me deeply.

What I felt made the biography so engaging is Maddox's liberal quotes from Rosalind's letters. This, Maddox points out, was deliberate, to allow Rosalind 'to speak in her own voice'. And what a voice it is! Her letters reveal very much of her personality; she wrote vividly with passion, conviction and confidence. Her diligent letters home to her parents when she was away (which was often) from the time she was sent to boarding school at the age of nine, showed her strong sense of family obligation. Her arguments with her father in her letters on diverse issues, from her living arrangements to the war and politics, showed that being a dutiful daughter from a strict Jewish family certainly did not inhibit her from stating and defending her opinions. In fact it could be a reason for her forthright manner and uncompromising nature.

Rosalind was educated and trained in England, where she earned her PhD for her work on coal. She then moved to Paris in 1947 where she worked in a government crystallographic laboratory. This was also when she met Jacques Mering who introduced her to X-ray crystallography. In 1950, she reluctantly returned to England, accepting an appointment in the field of biophysics at King's College London. This move sets in train the sequence of events leading to one of the 'great personal quarrels in the history of science' (p. 125).

From a young age, Rosalind had always set high standards for herself. Though she won many prizes in school, and later scholarships, she still appeared to have doubts about her abilities.

Nevertheless, according to her mother, 'All her life Rosalind knew exactly where she was going and at the age of sixteen, she took science for her subject' (p. 32). Maddox concludes that 'Rosalind's science always came straight from the heart' (p. 33). When her father criticised her for being interested in nothing but science, in making science her religion, she defended herself:

'But you look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life ... I agree that faith is essential to success in life ... In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.' (p. 60-61)

Dainton, her supervisor at Newnham College, correctly predicted that she would not get a first class degree not for lack of ability, but rather because she was 'if anything, too devoted (to science) ... she was inflexible and liable to misjudge her time, answering the first questions so thoroughly that she left no time for the others' (p. 68). This concern for correctness and to be 'absolutely sure of her facts' (p. 178) was carried through into her scientific career; crucially, in her refusal to acknowledge the helical structure of the A form of DNA without further proof. Maddox does well to portray both sides of Rosalind's character, and to correct some of the misrepresentations made by Watson in The Double Helix. Far from the dowdy 'Rosy', Rosalind's letters showed that she took much care with her appearance and followed latest fashion trends, especially during her time in Paris. Paris also turned out to be possibly her happiest times. In Paris, where women engaged as equals, Rosalind was respected and admired amongst her colleagues for her work.

She seemed 'a sound and cheerful young lady' then, did a lot of entertaining for her friends and family, and nurtured her love of walking by venturing on various mountaineering expeditions. Rosalind nevertheless, was not one to 'put up with silly rules in silence' (p. 46) and 'would never let anyone get away with a careless or unsubstantiated statement' (p. 95). Harry Carlisle, the head of crystallography at Birkbeck College, who initially described her as 'abrupt and peremptory', observed later that her forthrightness 'when she knew she was on firm ground sometimes gained her enemies' (p.85). To people who do not know her well, she was 'impatient', 'very opinionated', 'prickly'. Her close friend Peggy Clark in her assessment of Rosalind said, 'There is no doubt she could be a difficult character--impatient, bossy, intransigent. She was always straight to the point and was seldom diplomatic. However this was all because she had such high standards and expected everyone else to be able to reach her ideal requirements' (p. 306).

While getting along well with her colleagues in Paris, the same cannot be said of her subsequent time at King's College London. Maddox gives the reader an insight into the circumstances at the time, suggesting possible factors that could have contributed to the unfortunate events at King's. It is also interesting to see the difference in the reporting of events (as compared to Watson's account) leading to that landmark discovery by Watson and Crick. For one, Maddox maintains that Rosalind never doubted the helical structure of the B form of DNA. Rosalind had earlier successfully identified two forms of DNA--the A and B forms, and according to Maddox it was the helical structure of the A form that she doubted. Maddox further addresses some of the questions that arose such as:

Why did she put aside the critical Photograph 51 that clearly indicated the helical structure? Did she suspect the significance of her data to Watson and Crick's double helix model? If so, why did she remain silent and not stand up for herself?

Maddox also shows that there is more to Rosalind's accomplishments than just her work on DNA. In 1953 she left King's to join Birkbeck College under J.D. Bernal, and started work on viruses, in particular the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). At Birkbeck she found an ideal collaborator in Aaron Klug, with whom she did some of the most exceptional work of her life. There she also successfully built up a team of young scientists who were 'completely devoted' to her. Nevertheless some of the 'difficult' aspects of her character that isolated her from the rest of the staff at King's were also noticed at Birkbeck. However, Maddox points out, 'the great difference was that at Birkbeck, she was leader of a team doing superb work; she was neither isolated nor unappreciated nor unprotected' (p. 257).

Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 1956. Despite undergoing treatments and being in and out of hospital many times, she still threw herself into her work and produced many papers. The true nature of her illness was kept from her colleagues. She was more concerned with securing funding for her research team and completing her work than with the gravity of her illness. Through all these difficulties, Rosalind demonstrated a tenacity that is admirable. She was always sure of her values, and was not afraid to stand up for them. To her, having good friends around was more important than mere creature comforts. For example, defending her choice of Paris in her letter to her parents, she argued:

'Of course my standard of living is lower than at home ... Of course I appreciate conventional comforts ... but ... none of these things are of supreme importance to me ... I find life interesting ... I have good friends ... I find infinite kindness and goodwill among the people I work with. All this is far more important than a large meat ration, or more frequent baths.' (p. 91)

Her pursuit of science was not for glory. In contrast to Watson, who gave up work on TMV because 'the way to DNA was not through TMV', for Rosalind 'TMV was the way out of DNA' (p. 231). She remained unperturbed upon hearing that Watson and Crick had cracked DNA; she was confident of her own data and her attitude to the model was 'It's very pretty, but how are they going to prove it?' (p. 211). As Maddox fittingly concludes, 'Rosalind Franklin did not have her eyes on the prize. Nor did she worry about having been outrun in a race that no one but Watson and Crick knew was a race ... Rosalind knew her worth ... she was cheated only of the one thing she really wanted: the chance to complete her work. The lost prize was life.' (pp. 327-328).

The Double Helix and The Dark Lady in the classroom

Medawar points out in his review, that The Double Helix is an 'object lesson of the nature of the creative process in science' (in Stent, 1968, p. 183). The book can thus be used in the classroom to illustrate the scientific method in action, which as Medawar further points out is not a specific method at all but rather, as exemplified in The Double Helix, an interplay between 'hypothesis and inference, feedback and modified hypothesis' (p. 183). The 'human side' of science and scientists that the book conveys, in itself is reason enough for the book to be included as supplementary reading for the science classroom. Though the subject matter is biology, the upper secondary student should be able to follow through the story and arguments presented without a need to understand the technical parts of the narrative. The book is thus ideal for any science class, be it physics, chemistry or biology. Watson's highly entertaining style would certainly engage students, and might even convince those who think that scientists are 'boring' to believe otherwise.

However, I do agree with the view of some scientists that The Double Helix undermines the ethics of science, 'demonstrating to young people that winning justifies all' (Maddox, 2002, p. 317). Were Watson and Crick's actions justifiable considering the circumstances? What should be one's purpose in the pursuit of science? Also, does it imply that 'to be absolutely sure of one's facts' (Rosalind's motto), is an impediment if one wants to finish first? These questions could be used as triggers for class discussion. ] therefore feel that it would be best if a reading of The Double Helix is supplemented with that of The Dark Lady, so that a more balanced view can be presented to students. Students can then be encouraged to talk about the issues raised. It may however not be quite practical to expect students to read all 300 plus pages of Maddox's biography. What could be done instead is to let students read just Part Two of the book (the section that deals with the DNA discovery), and maybe a short summary of other relevant sections of the book.

Finally, I feel that as science teachers it is important for us to be informed of issues such as those raised in these two books. I have to admit that as a classroom teacher for many years I was too busy with the business of teaching. I neither found the time, nor was bothered enough, to read books like these. I think it is important for teachers (and science teachers especially) to keep abreast of contemporary issues in science. Teaching science is not and never has been only about teaching curriculum content, it is also about teaching values and attitudes.

If I am representative, books such as The Double Helix and The Dark Lady of DNA can impact on a teacher's attitudes and motivation towards science and science teaching to improve teaching and learning in the classroom.


Elkin, L. O. (2003). Rosalind Frank/in and the Double Helix. Retrieved October 10, 2006, from html

Hamer, D. H. (2002). The twisted road to the double helix. Scientific American, 287(6).

Maddox, B. (2002). Rosalind Franklin The dark lady of DNA. London: HarperCollins.

Stent, G. S. (1968). What they are saying about Honest Jim. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 43(2), 179-184.

Watson, J. D. (1968). The Double Helix. London: Penguin Books.
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Title Annotation:hands on
Author:Othman, Jazilah Bte
Publication:Teaching Science
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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