The Double Helix

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA is an autobiographical account of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA written by James D. Watson and published in 1968. It was and remains a controversial account, and though it was originally slated to be published by Harvard University Press, Watson's home university dropped the arrangement after protestations from Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, and it was published privately. It has been criticized as being excessively sexist towards Rosalind Franklin, another participant in the discovery, who was deceased by the time Watson's book was written. In 1998, the Modern Library placed The Double Helix at number 7 on its list of the 20th century's best works of non-fiction.

Very few other "big" scientific discoveries have such intimate first-person accounts. The book has been hailed as revealing the "seamy" side of scientific work, with its author seemingly caring only about the glory of priority and willing to appropriate data from others surreptitiously in order to obtain it. A 1980 Norton Critical Edition included a set of related scientific and literary pieces by such figures as Peter Medawar, Max Perutz, and Robert K. Merton. The book was made into a film dramatization as The Race for the Double Helix in 1987.


In the book Rosalind Franklin and DNA, author Anne Sayre is very critical of Watson's account. She claims that Watson's book did not give a balanced description of Rosalind Franklin and the nature of her interactions with Maurice Wilkins at King's College, London. Sayre's book raises doubts about the ethics of how Watson and Crick used some of Franklin's results and if adequate credit was given for it. Watson had very limited contact with Franklin during the time she worked on DNA. By providing more information about Franklin's life than was included in Watson's book, it was possible for Sayre to provide a different perspective on the role Franklin played in Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. (See: King's College (London) DNA Controversy)

In the book's preface, Watson explains that he is describing his impressions at the time of the events, and not at the time he wrote the book. In the epilogue Watson writes; Since my initial impressions about [Franklin], both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book) were often wrong I want to say something here about her achievements. He goes on to describe her superb work, and, despite this, the enormous barriers she faced as a woman in the field of science. He also acknowledged that it took years to overcome their bickering before appreciating Franklin's generosity and integrity.


  • James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Atheneum, 1980, ISBN 0-689-70602-2 (first published in 1968)
  • James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Norton Critical Editions), Norton, 1981, ISBN 0-393-95075-1.
  • Maddox, Brenda Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, 2002. ISBN 0-00-655211-0.
  • Wilkins, Maurice, The Third Man of the Double Helix, an autobiography ISBN 0-19-860665-6.
  • Sayre, Anne. 1975. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-32044-8.


James D Watson- The creator of the book along with Maurice Wilkins Linus Pauling Rosalind Franklin Francis Crick

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