The Double Helix Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Double Helix tells the story of the discovery of DNA by explaining the rivalries of the prideful scientific community and other roadblocks that James Watson had on the way to making the breakthrough of a lifetime.

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When Charles Darwin proposed that all living things are related in On the Origin of Species, he didn’t know exactly how. All of this changed with the discovery of the structure of DNA. It unlocked many mysteries of science.

In The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, we hear the story from none other than one of the two scientists who made the breakthrough: James Watson. He tells a surprising story of rivalries and oversized egos among scientists and how two ambitious young researchers unlocked the mystery of DNA. 

Here’s a summary of the book in just 3 lessons:

  1. Our recent advancements in our understanding of DNA began with a team of chemists in the 1950s named James Watson and Francis Crick.
  2. Things get tough as they competed with others that were also studying DNA.
  3. Through perseverance and errors of their competition, Watson and Crick made breakthroughs in the study of genetics that won them a Nobel Prize.

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Lesson 1: Chemists James Watson and Francis Crick’s DNA research in the 50s was the foundation for our current understanding of genetics.

We know that DNA is a molecule made up of two strands. We call it the double helix. It contains all of our genetic information. But back in the 1950s, no one cared much about DNA or understood its purpose. 

Because DNA appeared relatively simple, researchers didn’t think it could do something as important as holding genetic information. Chemists and physicists were interested in it but didn’t consider its link to genetics. 

X-Ray crystallography was the only way to see DNA at the time. A Professor of Indiana University, Prof. Salvador Luria studied viruses. He needed to use the technique, so he sent Watson, then a PhD student, to Europe to learn it for him.

Watson was fascinated when he learned that DNA was likely a regular, simple shape. He transferred to work under the founding father of X-Ray crystallography, Sir Lawrence Bragg, to learn more.  

It was there at Cambridge University where he met 34-year-old physicist Francis Crick. He was immediately drawn to Crick due to his intelligence. Not to mention that he shared the same belief about the importance of DNA. So the two quickly started working together to figure out what exactly the molecule did.

Lesson 2: Things got tough as the pair competed with others that were also studying DNA.

But they soon found out they weren’t the only ones interested in DNA. Maurice Wilkins, the scientist whose conference speech inspired Watson to look at DNA in the first place, was hard at work looking at the molecule too.

Wilkins was new at X-ray crystallography. He had the help of his assistant Rosalind Franklin, who was good at it. Franklin considered Wilkins more of a colleague than a boss. She also had her own interest in looking at DNA, which resulted in their strained relationship. 

Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology was a famous chemist. Crick and Watson believed he was looking to win a Nobel Prize, too. And he was interested in studying DNA. He even asked Wilkins for a copy of his DNA photograph.

Facing these two established scientists, Watson and Crick lost hope they would discover DNA’s structure first, but they didn’t give up. They began to use what they knew from the competing scientists. 

They used Pauling’s technique of building a large 3D model, something the English community frowned upon. Crick had also watched Franklin make measurements with her X-rays and used this information to deduce it had a helical structure. 

But when Watson and Crick showed their model to Franklin and Wilkins, they criticized them for getting the measurements wrong. Bragg criticized their method for building models and called them childish. Soon after, he shut down their research.

Watson was told to go back to studying viruses, while Crick was told he’d probably need to find a job somewhere else. 

Lesson 3: Watson and Crick persevered through difficulties, and their breakthroughs in genetics won them a Nobel Prize.

Surprisingly, even these roadblocks didn’t stop the determined scientists. During a year-long break from DNA study, the work they did at Cambridge made Sir Bragg happy enough to keep them.  

When Watson and Crick came across a manuscript from Linus Pauling that showed his attempt at describing DNA’s structure, their interest reignited. They also noticed that Paulings had made a big mistake in his research. 

When they presented Sir Bragg with their manuscript findings, he decided he would let them study it again. They all knew that Pauling’s mistake was going to be a huge embarrassment. If they didn’t act quickly, he would fix it and take all of the glory.

Interestingly, Watson followed a hunch that he believed DNA would have two helices. This is because things in nature usually come in twos. Like others had done, he built it out of the 4 amino acid bases. However, the chemistry book he copied the molecules’ structures from had an error. Lucky for them, world-renowned chemist Jerry Donohue was there to fix the error that could have devastated their work. 

As he connected the amino acids across each strand, he found that they came together at an even length, creating something like a twisting ladder. Mesmerized by it, they finally understood how this structure could help pass on genetic information flawlessly. 

Remarkably, Wilkins, Franklin, and Paulings didn’t show resentment at not reaching the discovery first. Wilkins’ model was finished only two days later.

Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize. They also made sure to acknowledge the contributions of the scientists who helped them along the way.

The Double Helix Review

Honestly, I thought this would be more about DNA science instead of history, but it was still pretty interesting. The Double Helix taught me a lot of things I had no idea about, which I liked. I do still wish there was more science in it, though.

Who would I recommend The Double Helix summary to?

The 18-year-old that’s considering studying genetics in college, the 61-year-old who loves to read interesting historical accounts of scientific breakthroughs, and anyone that’s curious to know how we got to understand DNA so well.

Last Updated on July 22, 2023

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Luke Rowley

With over 450 summaries that he contributed to Four Minute Books, first as a part-time writer, then as our full-time Managing Editor until late 2021, Luke is our second-most prolific writer. He's also a professional, licensed engineer, working in the solar industry. Next to his day job, he also runs Goal Engineering, a website dedicated to achieving your goals with a unique, 4-4-4 system. Luke is also a husband, father, 75 Hard finisher, and lover of the outdoors. He lives in Utah with his wife and 3 kids.