Posts Tagged ‘James D. Watson’

Harnessing Personalized Medicine for Cancer Management, Prospects of Prevention and Cure: Opinions of Cancer Scientific Leaders

Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN

This is our own representation of Experts on our Team expressing Scientific Opinions and Comments on their Peers’ Scientific work

presented from our Research Category on 

Interviews with Scientific Leaders

here are our members of the Team on Cancer Biology

Scientific Leaders @ http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com



Dr. Ritu Saxena –  On Personalized Medicine gearing up to tackle cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, the probability that an individual will develop or die from cancer over the course of a lifetime (lifetime risk) in the United States is less than a 1 in 2 for men; and a little more than 1 in 3 for women. Thanks to passionate and committed researchers like Dr. Tsimberidou, personalized medicine-based cancer treatments might take us a few steps closer to curing the disease.  Dr. Tsimberidou concludes, “We have to develop innovative treatment protocols and to offer the best treatment possible for each of our patients”.


Personalized medicine gearing up to tackle cancer



Dr. Tilda BarlyiaOn James Watson’s Examination of The “Cancer establishments”

In reply to cancer biologist Robert Weinberg of MIT

I would like to add something regarding this comment and I quote “the main reason drugs that target genetic glitches are not cures is that cancer cells have a work-around. If one biochemical pathway to growth and proliferation is blocked by a drug such as AstraZeneca‘s Iressa or Genentech’s Tarceva for non-small-cell lung cancer, said cancer biologist Robert Weinberg of MIT, the cancer cells activate a different, equally effective pathway”

“I think this is why some researching are aiming to find a drug that targets a common denominator of multiple pathways rather that “just” a specific pathway as many cancer cells activate a different equal pathway.”


The “Cancer establishments” examined by James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA w/Crick, 4/1953

January 9, 2013



Dr. Stephen WilliamsOn James Watson’s Examination of The “Cancer establishments”

I remember back in the 90s when big pharmas were talking about developing farnesyltransferase inhibitors (the enzyme that puts the modification on ras) as well as myc inhibitors as a sliver bullet for cancer therapy but I have not heard much else.

And as far as personlized medicine, yes personalized medicine does have a role to play and can be very effective but remember we are only talking about  maybe 10% of cases for a tumor type.

Kudos to both Watson and Weinstein for stating we really need to delve into tumor biology to determine functional pathways (like metabolism) which are a common feature of the malignant state


The “Cancer establishments” examined by James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA w/Crick, 4/1953

January 9, 2013


Pierluigi Scalia MD, PhD  — On Molecular Pathology and Personalized Medicine

Commissioned Comment by Dr. Aviva Lev-Ari

The nanotechnology field certainly provides plenty of opportunity in the field of personalized cancer treatments (Rx). One comment I wanted to make due to the high relevance and implication is in the definition of Personalized Medicine” at large. I believe you are correct to define it as a “movement” within modern medicine as it has been so far. However, I believe we have all the multidisciplinary knowledge we need to move that concept to a real science and a specific operating system in the way we do think and apply medical knowledge.

Even though your definition is definitely correct, I would provide an operating version which I believe can help many to understand WHAT are the minimum requirements to classify a Cancer treatment as part of a “personalized” cancer treatment.
My take on that (which i have expressed elsewhere) is that:

“Personalized Cancer Medicine is that field of medicine using a next-generation diagnostic procedure (or a minimum cancer gene-drivers screening panel) in order to define a key number of cancer abnormalities in each patient clinical specimen for which a targeted therapy or smart integrated approach provides a definite survival advantage versus current conventional medicine”.

This operational definition anticipates the concept of applied pharmacogenomics that is currently more of a research area rather than a clinically mature field.

On the other hand, it leads us to that limiting factor towards the adoption of personalized treatments which is the evolution in molecular pathology with full adoption of genomics as the routine way to screen for a patient Oncotype as part of the routine diagnostic process.

The fact of using nanotechnology in order to target and treat abnormal cancer cells and tissues adds a powerful weapon towards eradicating the disease in the foreseeable future. However, focusing on weapons when we still have not found a reliable way to build that personalized “shooting target” (Cancer Fingerprinting) still constitutes, in my opinion, the single most relevant barrier to the adoption of Personalized treatments.


Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing

January 9, 2013


Larry Bernstein, MD – On  Modern Techniques of Molecular Pathology

A look at clinical laboratory science and its expected progress over the next decade


In Response to Dr. Scalia’s Comment on Molecular Pathology


Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing

Commissioned Post by Dr. Aviva Lev-Ari

January 9, 2013

Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing

Promising forecasts have been made projecting great expectations for medical sciences in the year 2013 and beyond. These predictions follow a decade after completion of the Human Genome Project, and are accompanied by immense breakthroughs in computational and applied mathematics.  In my view, they are:

  • Genomic and allied “OMICs-technology”
  • Innovation in mathematical classification (complexity)
  • Nanotechnology
  • Synthetic chemistry from physics, organic and inorganic chemistry

It is not my intention to go deeply into the exponential group of these advanced and integrative sciences; rather, I want raise awareness of an emerging new world that will open to the clinical laboratory scientist, and signal the need in the next generation of laboratory personnel to embrace knowledge domains that will be critical for their careers.

All of these breakthroughs are tied together by a search for personalized and integrative medicine.  These breakthroughs will reinvent nutritional and pharmaceutical medicine as well as medical devices and restructure clinical laboratory and imaging applications to cardiology, oncology, radiology and anatomical pathology.


What does metabolomics and metabolic profiling have to do with this? Metabolomics is the measurement of small molecules that interact with membrane receptors1 that are involved with regulation of genomic transcription and cellular regulation and upregulation or downregulation of metabolic processes essential to health. As well, these small molecules may provide targets for disease treatments, and as they are investigated, also provide further “analytes for diagnosis and, moreover, prediction of short-term or long-term outcomes.”2

As a result, the laboratory will become a more significant factor in measuring health and disease and in guiding health or disease maintenance.  As our population has reached increased age limits, the laboratory has been a contributor in the public health sphere, and will have a greater role as a result of

  • Improved tie in with provision of information to not only the healthcare workers, but also the patient.
  • Achieve turnaround times for critical results through better workflow
  • Greater control and access to a next generation of point-of-care technology integrated with the laboratory database, and a restructured electronic health record.
  • Despite the hype about the BIG DATA revolution, this is achievable in the system here proposed because there is a published model to achieve this(2)

Familiar Methods

Either individually or grouped as a profile, metabolites are detected by either nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy or mass spectrometry, providing a basis for uses of metabolome findings extended to the early detection and diagnosis of cancer and as both a predictive and pharmacodynamics marker of drug effect. We can expect it to become the link between the laboratory and the clinic. The methods used in genomics are microarrays, and for proteomics they are the already familiar chromatographic principles that species migrate at different rates through a column matrix based on their volatility, or carries out a separation as the molecules differ by their adsorption to and elution from a solid matrix, dependent on the binding to the matrix and solubility in the solvent eluate, modified by ph, ionic concentration, and specific conditions needed for recovery.  Powerful mathematical tools are used to analyze the data.3

Cardiovascular Disease

Although coronary thrombosis is the final event in acute coronary syndromes, there is increasing evidence that inflammation also plays a key role in development of atherosclerosis and its clinical manifestations, such as myocardial infarction, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. The inflammatory component was indicated by epidemiological studies of elevated serum levels of high sensitivity C-reactive protein. That eventually led to the demonstration of a benefit from reduction of CRP in individuals without characteristic lipidemia in a major clinical trial, which drew a relationship between diabetes, obesity and disordered inflammatory response in the causation of coronary artery disease, aortic valve and artery disease, carotid artery and peripheral vascular disease.


Because cancer cells are known to possess a highly unique metabolic phenotype, development of specific biomarkers in oncology is possible and might be used in identifying fingerprints, profiles or signatures to detect the presence of cancer, determine prognosis and/or assess the pharmacodynamic effects of therapy.4

HDM2, a negative regulator of the tumor suppressor p53, is over-expressed in many cancers that retain wild-type p53. Consequently, the effectiveness of chemotherapies that induce p53 might be limited, and inhibitors of the HDM2–p53 interaction are being sought as tumor-selective drugs.5


Blood coagulation plays a key role among numerous mediating systems activated in inflammation. Receptors of the PAR family serve as sensors of serine proteinases of the blood clotting system in the target cells involved in inflammation. Activation of PAR_1 by thrombin and of PAR_2 by factor Xa leads to a rapid expression and exposure on the membrane of endothelial cells of both adhesive proteins that mediate an acute inflammatory reaction and of the tissue factor that initiates the blood coagulation cascade.

The details of evolving methods are avoided in order to build the argument that a very rapid expansion of discovery has been evolving depicting disease, disease mechanisms, disease associations, metabolic biomarkers, study of effects of diet and diet modification, and opportunities for targeted drug development.

Dr. Bernstein is CEO of Triplex Medical Science, and CSO of Leaders in Pharmaceutical Intelligence http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com. He has been involved in writing,  reviewing, and a collaborative project on reducing  the noise that exists in complex data, and developing a primary evidence-based classification since retiring from a career in pathology spanning 4 decades.


1. Bernstein LH. Metabolomics, metabonomics and functional nutrition: The next step in nutritional metabolism and biotherapeutics. Journal of Pharmacy and Nutrition Sciences, 2012, 2, (xxx).

2. David G, Bernstein LH, and Coifman RR. Generating evidence-based interpretation of hematology screens via anomaly characterization. The Open Clinical Chemistry Journal 2011;4: 10-16.

3. Grainger DJ. Megavariate statistics meets high data-density analytical methods: The future of medical diagnostics? IRTL Reviews 2003;1:1-6.

4. Spratlin JL, Serkova NJ, and Eckhardt SG. Clinical applications of metabolomics in oncology: A review. Clin Cancer Res 2009;15; 15(2): 431–440.

5. Fischer PM, Lane DP. Small molecule inhibitors of thep53 suppressor HDM2: Have protein-protein interactions come of age as drug targets? Trends in Pharm Sci 2004;25(7):343-346.

Other Articles on this Open Access Online Scientific Journal:

Bernstein LH. Assessing Cardiovascular Disease with Biomarkers. http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com

Bernstein LH. Predicting Tumor Response, Progression, and Time to Recurrence. http://pharmaceticalintelligence.com

Bernstein LH. Special Considerations in Blood Lipoproteins, Viscosity, Assessment and Treatment. http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com

Comment in Response to Dr. Scalia’s Comment In:

Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing

January 9, 2013



Dr. Tilda Barlyia – On Quality control (QC) of DNA sequencing

In response to Larry Bernstein, MD comment on 

Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing


Quality control (QC) of DNA sequencing is of major challenge especially when sequencing long DNA strands. This is also probably one of the reasons why these nanopore DNA sequencers devices haven’t made it to the market yet. Some of the challenges that these sequencing technique have encountered are: (a) high velocity in which the DNA segment passes through the pores and which needs to be slowed down, (b) the need for high spatial resolutions and orientation of the nucleotide in the gap, (c) complex algorithms as well as error-prone DNA conversion steps (from dsDNA to ssDNA). I believe that there’s a long way before we see these devices on the shelf but it’s definitely inspiring to see how scientists vision these techniques and creatively finds ways to solve the problem.


Nanotechnology, personalized medicine and DNA sequencing

January 9, 2013


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Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP and Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN 

Screen Shot 2021-07-19 at 6.14.55 PM

Word Cloud By Danielle Smolyar

DNA pioneer James Watson takes aim at “Cancer establishments”

By Sharon Begley

Sharon Begley, the senior health & science correspondent at Reuters, was the science editor and the science columnist at Newsweek from 2007 to April 2011, and a contributing writer at the magazine and its website, The Daily Beast, until December 2011. From 2002 to 2007, she was the science columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and previous to that the science editor at Newsweek. She is the co-author (with Richard J. Davidson)  of the 2012 book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, the author of the 2007 book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and the co-author (with Jeffrey Schwartz) of the 2002 book The Mind and the Brain. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her writing, including an honorary degree from the University of North Carolina for communicating science to the public, and the Public Understanding of Science Award from the San Francisco Exploratorium. She has spoken before many audiences on the topics of science writing, neuroplasticity, and science literacy, including at Yale University (her alma mater), the Society for Neuroscience, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Sciences.Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sxbegle for breaking science news, not what I’m having for breakfast.
  • On the $100 million U.S. project to determine the DNA changes that drive nine forms of cancer: It is “not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need,” Watson argued. On the idea that antioxidants such as those in colorful berries fight cancer: “The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”
  • The main reason drugs that target genetic glitches are not cures is that cancer cells have a work-around. If one biochemical pathway to growth and proliferation is blocked by a drug such as AstraZeneca‘s Iressa or Genentech’s Tarceva for non-small-cell lung cancer, said cancer biologist Robert Weinberg of MIT, the cancer cells activate a different, equally effective pathway.
  • That is why Watson advocates a different approach: targeting features that all cancer cells, especially those in metastatic cancers, have in common.
  • One such commonality is oxygen radicals. Those forms of oxygen rip apart other components of cells, such as DNA. That is why antioxidants, which have become near-ubiquitous additives in grocery foods from snack bars to soda, are thought to be healthful: they mop up damaging oxygen radicals.
  • That simple picture becomes more complicated, however, once cancer is present. Radiation therapy and many chemotherapies kill cancer cells by generating oxygen radicals, which trigger cell suicide. If a cancer patient is binging on berries and other antioxidants, it can actually keep therapies from working, Watson proposed.
  • “Everyone thought antioxidants were great,” he said. “But I’m saying they can prevent us from killing cancer cells.”
  • One elusive but promising target, Watson said, is a protein in cells called Myc. It controls more than 1,000 other molecules inside cells, including many involved in cancer. Studies suggest that turning off Myc causes cancer cells to self-destruct in a process called apoptosis.
  • “The notion that targeting Myc will cure cancer has been around for a long time,” said cancer biologist Hans-Guido Wendel of Sloan-Kettering. “Blocking production of Myc is an interesting line of investigation. I think there’s promise in that.”
  • Targeting Myc, however, has been a backwater of drug development. “Personalized medicine” that targets a patient’s specific cancer-causing mutation attracts the lion’s share of research dollars.
  • “The biggest obstacle” to a true war against cancer, Watson wrote, may be “the inherently conservative nature of today’s cancer research establishments.” As long as that’s so, “curing cancer will always be 10 or 20 years away.”(Reporting by Sharon Begley; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Peter Cooney)



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Interview with the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD. RN

As a new edition of The Double Helix hits bookshelves, Boing-Boing‘s Maggie Koerth-Baker takes the opportunity to interview James Watson about his characterization of Rosalind Franklin, who, Koerth-Baker says, “is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature” and referred to throughout as “Rosy,” even though that was not a nickname she used.

Reconsideration of Rosalind Franklin by James Watson

As a new edition of The Double Helix hits bookshelves, Boing-Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker takes the opportunity to interview James Watson about his characterization of Rosalind Franklin, who, Koerth-Baker says, “is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature” and referred to throughout as “Rosy,” even though that was not a nickname she used.

Answering questions by email, Watson admits that his perception of Franklin was “colored” by his friendship with Maurice Wilkins, who was openly hostile toward her.

As the new edition of the book illustrates, the friction between Franklin and Wilkins was largely due to miscommunication. While Wilkins believed Franklin was hired to be his assistant, a letter from their department head, John Randall, published in the new edition indicates that she was actually hired to lead the DNA project.

“Reading Watson’s perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn’t communicating very well with either Franklin or Wilkins,” Koerth-Baker says.

Watson tells her that the Randall letter “makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why — that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.”

Would Watson portray Franklin any differently if he were to write the book today?

“I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe,” he tells Koerth-Baker. “But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin.”

In addition, he says, “I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice,” which is “made vivid” in another letter reproduced in the book.


The Turn of the Screw: James Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

 at 7:57 am Thu, Nov 8

The Double Helix is a famous book. It’s also an infamous one. Written by James Watson in 1968, it tells the story of how he and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA. The catch is that Watson chose to write that story in what was, at the time, a damn-near unprecedented way. He didn’t write a history. He didn’t exactly write an autobiography, either. Instead, The Double Helix is a bookabout history, told in story form, where everything is seen through the eyes of a single narrator — the 25-year-old James Watson.

He is not the world’s most likable narrator. Nor the most reliable one. I mean that in the sense of the “unreliable narrator” from fiction. We see this world through young Watson’s eyes, and his perspective isn’t always accurate. The story is shaped by his prejudices and his personality, and it can’t really be read as THE account of what actually happened. That’s a good thing, because the choice of style allowed Watson to really capture the back-room conflict (and cooperation), and the sense of urgency, that drives scientific discovery. It’s a bad thing because it’s far too easy to forget that The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s not a scholarly history. It’s more like memoir crossed with narrative non-fiction. You can’t walk away from it thinking that Watson’s narration represents some kind of objective truth.

The new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix — published this month by Simon and Schuster — makes that fact abundantly clear. Full of photographs, letters, handwritten notes, and commentary from other people involved in the history of DNA, this edition gives you glimpses of other perspectives — of a story much bigger than the one told in The Double Helix, itself.

It also made me wonder about James Watson’s reaction to documents that completely upend the story as he told it — especially documents relating to Rosalind Franklin, a scientist whose work was instrumental in deciphering DNA’s structure and who is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature.

So I asked him about it.

I should clarify that I wasn’t able to talk to James Watson by phone. This interview was done via email, and that’s not my favorite way to work. With email (and you’ll see this) it’s far too easy to end up with one-sentence answers to complicated questions. Worse, there’s no opportunity for follow-ups. But I do appreciate the Watson took the time to write some good answers to my questions about Franklin, and I wanted to share those with you.

First, though, a little background. Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist who worked primarily with x-ray crystallography, a method of determining the shape and structure of things that we can’t see with our own eyes. Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. You can’t see it. But you know it’s there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane.

That’s basically what x-ray crystallography does. You shoot x-rays at a crystalline structure, like a molecule of DNA. Those beams hit the molecule and bounce off and you use the patterns of diffraction to learn something about the molecule’s shape.

In the early 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick were attempting to figure out the structure of DNA, but they weren’t the only ones. In fact, Crick had avoided getting involved with DNA for several years because his friend, Maurice Wilkins, was also studying it. This is where Franklin comes in.

In 1950, the head of Wilkins department hired Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins — and his friends Crick and Watson — were under the impression that Franklin was supposed to be Wilkins’ assistant. But she didn’t act like his assistant. She acted like his colleague or, perhaps, his competitor. And that disconnect between who Wilkins thought Franklin was supposed to be and who she thought she was created a really shitty working environment. Wilkins was angry at Franklin, and his anger seems to have rubbed off on how his friends perceived her. Mix that with a little sexism and you get some of The Double Helix‘s most controversial parts. Here’s an excerpt from James Watson’s initial description of Franklin:

I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite 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.

It goes without saying that Watson was not particularly concerned with the fashion choices of his male colleagues. Likewise, the nickname “Rosy” isn’t one that Franklin ever used. It was bestowed on her, and really only behind her back. Throughout The Double Helix, Watson refers to her as Rosy, even while calling other people by their formal last names. Or, at least, by names they would have called themselves.

But one of the interesting things this edition of The Double Helix does is shine some light on the initial conflict. On the page opposite the description I quoted above, you can see a photocopy of a letter, sent to Franklin by the department head, where he basically tells her that she’s been hired to lead the DNA project — not to work for Maurice Wilkins.

Basically, Franklin was right in thinking that she wasn’t Wilkins’ assistant.

Reading Watson’s perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn’t communicating very well with either Franklin orWilkins. In this reading, Watson kind of becomes the catty best friend, attacking somebody his pal was angry with even though he didn’t know all the details of what was going on. It’s Facebook drama in the laboratory.

And that brings me to the questions I asked Watson.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: I very much enjoyed this edition of the book, and the fact that it contained all these documents that provided some contrasting viewpoints and added to the depth of your perspective. And it seems like, in some cases, you’d originally written the book without having seen certain documents that end up significantly changing the story. In particular, I’m thinking of the letter from John Randall to Rosalind Franklin showing that she was right in thinking she hadn’t been hired to be Maurice Wilkins’ assistant, but rather his colleague. I’m curious about when you finally found out about that letter and what you thought about it. Did it change your perspective on the conflicts between Wilkins and Franklin?

James Watson: The Randall letter was discussed in Brenda Maddox’s biography of Franklin [in 2003] and that’s probably where I first became aware of it. But in this edition, Alex and Jan reproduce the whole letter – one of the pleasures of this edition is the number of letters and other documents they reproduce as facsimiles. Its fun to see letters just as their recipients saw them.

This letter makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why–that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.

MKB: I’d like to ask you a question about your treatment of Franklin, given that it’s one of the things The Double Helix is rather famous for. Or, perhaps, infamous. You set out to write a book that captured your thoughts and feelings and viewpoint as a young man, in this specific time period, in an often-contentious working environment. But I’m curious about how your perspective on those events has changed over time. If you were to sit down and write about the events in this book now, not through your at-the-time perspective, but as you think about the past today, would it change the way that you portrayed Dr. Franklin? How has the way you think about her changed as you’ve gotten older?

JW: We didn’t know Franklin well–I only met her perhaps three times and Francis once in this period. So, my view of her was inevitably colored by our friendship with Wilkins and what he told us about her.

I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe. But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin. I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice. This is made vivid in her correspondence, especially in one letter reproduced in the book.

In this new edition, I notice that Ray [Gosling – her student] has rather a good line in response to my comments about her appearance. He notes that I never saw her dressed up to go out in the evening, and that she had an elegance that I probably never saw.

I mentioned that Francis and I hardly knew Franklin at this time. Later, of course, we both saw more of her, as she was very much part of the elite structural biology community – her excellent work on TMV ensured that (though is often over-looked in popular accounts of her life). [He’s referring to her work with tobacco mosaic virus, which she spent the last few years of her life studying. TMV was the first virus ever discovered and Franklin’s work was instrumental in our understanding of RNA viruses. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. — MKB]

Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51, an x-ray crystallography image of DNA.

There’s a bit more to the Franklin-Watson/Crick story than just office squabbling. One of the most controversial points concerns a particular x-ray crystallography image that she took, which was shown to Watson without Franklin’s knowledge or permission. That image ended up playing an important role in Watson’s and Crick’s ability to figure out the structure of DNA. But this edition of the book — and Watson’s answers — provide a deeper view of what was going on in the background — how a personality conflict and bad management led to a much bigger controversy that people are still arguing about today.

I asked James Watson three other questions about the book, as well. His answers to these were less substantive, but you can read them below. In general, I’d definitely recommend this edition of The Double Helix. If you’re going to read the book, this is the way it ought to be read. As James Watson’s limited view of his own life, it’s interesting. But the history really comes alive when you can see more of what everybody around him was thinking, as well. Among the gems: three pages of Francis Crick’s six-page letter urging Watson to not publish The Double Helix, to begin with.


MKB: I’m curious about what got you interested in writing a book like The Double Helix to begin with. At the time, it was far out of the norm for the way that scientists wrote about science and, in fact, it was fairly far out of the norm for the way anyone wrote about anything. Narrative non-fiction was still a developing field, even from the perspective of journalists. What influenced your desire to write a story this way and what did you look to for inspiration?

James Watson: The story was too good not to be told as it actually happened!

MKB: One of the things that stands out to me in the book is your frustration with stuffy and bureaucratic social expectations within the scientific community. In particular, I’m thinking about some of the early chapters, where you talk about Francis Crick being unable to study DNA because Maurice Wilkins already was and it would have been poor form for another English scientist to try and “scoop” him, as it were. How have you seen this aspect of science change in the years since you wrote The Double Helix? Have some of those formalities fallen away? What are the new social twists you see young scientists having to navigate?

JW: Friendships almost have to evaporate when a scientist chooses unilaterally to work toward a scientific objective also pursued by a friend.

MKB: I was really struck by your description of Linus Pauling and the way he announced his findings in theatrical lectures. It reminded me a bit of some of the more theatrical, hyped-up scientific pronouncements of recent years, especially the now-discredited findings like arsenic life and faster-than-light neutrinos. In the wake of those events, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how this was so outside the norm for scientists, but it doesn’t seem much different from Pauling’s tactics. It’s just that he was usually right. I’m curious about your thoughts on this. Do you see more theatrics in science today? How do you think the increased media spotlight has influenced the way scientists announce their work to the public? And how do you see your role in that, given the fact that The Double Helix was a major part of popularizing science and making it something more breathless and story-driven?

JW: I find theatrical performances even rarer than when Pauling lived. Almost no one now risks offending pompous individuals in the audience who later might review either their research articles or judge their applications for research money. Today’s science stifles individuality.

• The annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helixby James Watson is available in hardcoverKindle, and eBook.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook



Shining a Light on the ‘Dark Lady of DNA’

By Josh Fischman
Posted Sunday, August 6, 2006

Four people in England, back in 1953, gazed at the mysterious image called Photo 51. It wasn’t much–a grainy picture showing a black X. But three of these people won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what the photo really showed–the shape of DNA, the basic unit of life on Earth. The discovery brought fame and fortune to scientists James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. The fourth, the one who actually made the picture, was left out.

Her name was Rosalind Franklin. “She should have been up there,” says Mary Ellen Bowden, a historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. “If her images hadn’t been there, the others couldn’t have come up with the structure.” One reason Franklin was missing was that she had died of cancer four years before the Nobel decision, and it can’t be awarded after death. But there is a growing suspicion among scholars that Franklin was not only robbed of her life by disease but robbed of credit by her competitors. She, as much as the men around her, was first in the race to understand DNA.

Scientists knew, in the 1940s, that DNA was the thing carrying hereditary information from an organism to its descendants. But because it was too small to see directly, they had no idea how the molecule performed this feat.

Cutouts. So at Cambridge University in the 1950s, Watson and Crick went at it indirectly, by making models; they cut up shapes of DNA’s constituents and tried to piece them together. Meanwhile, at King’s College in London, Franklin and Wilkins shined X-rays at the molecule. The rays produced patterns reflecting the shape.

But Wilkins and Franklin’s relationship was a lot rockier than the celebrated teamwork of Watson and Crick. Wilkins thought Franklin was hired to be his assistant. But the college actually brought her on to take over the DNA imaging project.

Which is what she did, producing X-ray pictures that, among other things, told Watson and Crick that one of their early models was inside out. And she was not shy about saying so. That antagonized Watson, who lambasted her in his 1968 book, The Double Helix: “Mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. … Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.” (Other colleagues remember her as a supportive and highly skillful scientist.)

As Franklin’s rivals, Watson and Wilkins had much to gain by cutting her out of the clubby little group of researchers, says science historian Pnina Abir-Am of Brandeis University. Exclusion was made easy by her gender–King’s banned women from important dining rooms. And Wilkins grew closer to Watson. Close enough to show to Watson, casually, Franklin’s Photo 51. “My mouth fell open,” Watson wrote. That X shape was in fact a double helix, two strands wrapped around one another but running in opposite directions. This made it a biological copying machine, able to transmit mirror images of information from one cell to a daughter cell, from a parent to a child.

Watson and Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin published separate papers describing this code of life in the same 1953 issue of Nature. Franklin went on to study viruses, and then took sick, and in 1962 the others took to the Nobel podium. Wilkins gave a speech in which he thanked 13 colleagues by name before he mentioned Franklin. Watson wrote his book deriding her. Crick wrote in 1974 that “Franklin was only two steps away from the solution.”

No, says Abir-Am: Franklin was the solution. “She contributed more than any other player to solving the structure of DNA. She must be considered a codiscoverer.” Lynne Osman Elkin, a biographer of Franklin, agrees, saying that Franklin’s notebooks show she was on to the double helix–a claim backed up by Aaron Klug, who worked with Franklin on viruses and later won a Nobel Prize himself. Once described as the “Dark Lady of DNA,” Franklin is finally coming into the light.

This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report. Article available online: <http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/060806/14dna.htm>



Photo 51—A Recent Addition to History-of-Science-Inspired Theatre

Pnina G. Abir-Am, PhD, Brandeis University

The play Photograph 51, named after the sharpest image in a series of DNA X-ray photos taken by Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) in a biophysics lab at King’s College, London in 1952, played this past spring at the Central Square Theatre1 in Cambridge, MA.

This Theatre is fittingly located between M.I.T. (which co-sponsors it) and Harvard, two institutions still recovering from a few scandals on the under-representation of women in science. The play is thus timely, coming as it does on the heels of “Barriers and Bias,” the National Academy of Science Reports (2006, 2007, 2009) that try to address the persisting gender inequality in science. But the play has a wider connection to the history of science because it deals not only with gender bias in science, but also with the paramount issue of credit allocation in scientific discovery.

HSS Newsletter readers may recall that the 2003 HSS Annual Meeting2 (incidentally held in Cambridge, MA. not too far from this Theatre) featured two sessions on “DNA at 50” which explored new perspectives on the discovery of DNA structure at its 50th anniversary. But unlike our HSS speakers who explored archival material, (in the regular session) or their own memories (in the panel at which attendees, including former HSS President Gerald Holton, posed questions to local DNA luminaries, Paul Doty, Wally Gilbert, and Alex Rich), this well-received play relies mainly on biographies,3 and on a namesake PBS documentary, aired in 2003: “DNA: Secret of Photo 51.”

The discovery of DNA’s structure, having been embroiled in controversy for decades,4 provides a perfect opportunity for playwrights to apply their dramatic license. The controversy revolves around the unacknowledged use of Rosalind Franklin’s work in the famous paper announcing the double helix conformation of DNA. Franklin’s premature death enabled others to both obscure her role and take all the credit for themselves,5 much as the premature death of the discoverer of the Nile’s origins provided an opportunity for another “colleague” to claim all the credit for himself.6

It is thus impossible to grasp the importance of a play7such as Photograph 51, that “succeeds in focusing a long-overdue spotlight on Rosalind Franklin…the playwright makes Franklin seem worthy of that spotlight, not just as a neglected figure of science but as a compelling character,”8 without recalling the insightful “cultural background” that precedes the play. According to The Double Helix, which is included on the reading lists of many courses and remains the only “source” most theatre goers would have read, Crick and Watson had to leave their official scientific missions in protein and virus structure, respectively, so as to rescue scientific progress in DNA from its blockage at the hands of Rosalind Franklin. She is portrayed as a recalcitrant woman scientist who refused to collaborate with their friend, the more-veteran lab member Wilkins, even though she was presumably unable to interpret her own results because of her supposed “anti-helical” bias. Consequently, the three men had no choice but to obtain the golden data by whatever means they could. (Those means were still debated half a century later.)

Though the transition from Photo 51 to the model of the double helix raises interesting questions on the relationship between the context of discovery and the context of justification, which could have been pursued in the manner of Copenhagen,9 Photograph 51 opts for interrogating the role of gender bias in preventing Franklin from both completing the discovery of DNA structure on her own, as well as in not getting credit for it. This “take” is justified by the fact that in addition to her “scientific sins,” (i.e. not being content in the role of an assistant and making discoveries on her own) Franklin was further demonized as “Rosy.” That nickname, used behind her back, captured a female character as negative as the male imagination of the early 1950s could sustain, i.e. a glasses-wearing bluestocking, poorly dressed, ignorant of lipstick, lashing at more veteran men, asocial and hence lonely, and last, but not least, lacking romantic prospects at the ripe age of 31. That “Rosy” was the very opposite of historical reality did not seem to matter to its “creators” who openly pandered to their audience’s sexism.

Photograph 51 thus revolves around the sensible idea that if there was a failure to collaborate, then the blame for it must be shared more equitably among the involved parties. Since the charge that Franklin was uncooperative originated with Wilkins, the play focuses on the role of gender in poisoning the work relationships between him and Franklin. But the play is unable to project a “balance of blame,” not for lack of talent on the part of the playwright whose dialogues are crisp and punchy, but rather because our culture remains so suffused with gender stereotypes that a mere balancing effort is not sufficient to better distribute blame across the gender divide. For example, Wilkins’ portrayal as smug and entitled does not strike the audience as so bad when compared to its portrayal of Franklin as a combative, fierce, unbendingly serious, and uncompromising female character.

However, the play’s portrayal of Wilkins as a captive of sexism who persists in regarding his colleague first and foremost as a woman whom he must date instead of seeing in her a scientist with complementary skills with whom he might collaborate, evokes well the predicament of women scientists in an era of “unmitigated sexism.” One scene revolves around a box of chocolate that Wilkins tries to force on Franklin who, to his endless surprise, declines it firmly. Women such as Franklin who chose not to surrender their bodies, were expected at the very least to surrender their body of work; if they refused, then the work was snatched anyway. The pretext that she was uncooperative was invented to justify such a scenario.10

By focusing on Franklin and her diverse relationships with men colleagues, (bad with Wilkins, but great with the graduate student Ray Gosling, and would-be boyfriend, scientist Don Caspar) Photograph 51 relegates the better-known saviors of scientific progress, Watson and Crick, further portrayed as a comic duo, to the margins, which is the way they must have looked in Franklin’s eyes. The play further contrasts the work ethics of seriousness of purpose and dedication on the part of Rosalind Franklin with the three men constantly bonding over drinks and having fun as they relax in gender-segregated dining halls. Since they spend so much time socializing and have no results of their own, they seem aware that their only way to fame is to “sniff” Franklin’s crucial data. I borrow this term from a theatre reviewer who also observed: “Franklin…is the clear intellectual hero. She is the purest, most genuinely curious scientist. The men, a casual bunch next to the burning, all-business Franklin, tend to be various strains of pig—ambitious, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc.”11

Indeed, this play dramatizes not only gender bias but also racial bias. In dialogues between Wilkins and Watson, Jews are referred to as difficult people or “ornerous,” whose loyalty to England should be questioned. There is enough in the play to suggest that race/ethnicity, as well as gender, were factors in Franklin’s decision to move to another lab. But perhaps both factors were even more important in providing the men with culturally endorsed motives for “blaming” her for their own problems, scientific and otherwise, thus paving the way for justifying their eventual “acquisition” of her data, data that she refused to surrender. In my own studies of the interaction between British science policy makers and Franklin’s lab, I came across references to “Jews and foreigners” as an undesirable trait of the lab. Apparently that trait was sufficient to require a special oversight committee over the lab, which ironically became yet another avenue for leaking Franklin’s results.12

Photo 51 does not explore another major component of the politics of identity that also played a key role in the discovery of DNA structure, that of class. This is an odd omission since in the predominantly British context of the play, class may well have been more crucial than either gender or race/ethnicity in explaining behavior (still, the sheer combination of all three variables over-determined this case). As it “happened,” all three men who sniffed Franklin’s data belonged to families that lost their middle class status during the Great Depression and hence, became obsessed with regaining their prior social respectability. For all three, the only way up at the time meant an association with a major scientific breakthrough.

By contrast, Franklin belonged to an upper-class family with a distinguished record in both civic affairs and philanthropy. One great-uncle, Viscount Herbert Samuel, was Head of the Liberal Party before WW1. Another was Lord Mayor of London.13 This social background, further coupled with gossip that her family was wealthy, (Lord Rothschild, a scientist whose namesake Report played a major role in British science policy in the 1970s was a second cousin) and that she had an allowance (though she insisted on living mainly from her modest salary) would have positioned Rosalind Franklin in the mind of these three men, all resentful at being demoted to the verge of genteel poverty, as a perfect target for revenge.

If we further recall that Wilkins and Crick were left by their first wives, (the play includes a line to that effect) and that Wilkins and Watson constantly solicited help from Crick (who lived in an open marriage with his second wife, an artist) in “finding women,” a vexing subject discussed endlessly; (apparently the women did not stick around since Wilkins and Watson continued to search for them until age 40) then, the unavailable Franklin was a constant reminder of their own far-from-shining predicament. No wonder they obsessed about her all the time and projected upon her their own social and scientific anxieties. The three men would have almost had to step outside their culture and society not to take advantage of an opportunity to become famous at the expense of a well to do, or “rich” in common parlance, Jewish woman who in their opinion didn’t even “need” a career in science. Class, race, gender, and sexuality melted any moral or ethical dilemma they might have faced. How could the playwright miss an opportunity to make more of the class, race and sex aspects of such material?!

Most of the reviews I have seen14 were appreciative of the production. (The sleek lab set is often praised, as well as the direction, and the acting.) To my delight they were also receptive of the main idea that a woman scientist with a compelling character, commitment to her vocation, and major scientific achievement was robbed of her share of glory by three men: her “emotionally constipated, professionally unsupportive colleague Maurice Wilkins,” a “bluff, worldly Crick” and an “intensely disagreeable Watson.”15 But at least one theatre critic, was sufficiently troubled by what he calls an “ideological version of her story” in this play to conduct his own research.16 Though he praises the playwright for treading “a mostly sure-footed middle ground between the ideological version of the story and the more prosaic historical one,” the critic believes that his own research lowers the play’s dramatic impact (which revolves around the disparity of fortune between those who do the work and those who take the credit). That critic, who kept the nature of his “research” to himself, tries to salvage the status quo (i.e. that the distribution of credit for this discovery is problematic but it does not require major revision17) by invoking Franklin’s departure from King’s, among related insights. I omit them here not only for reason of space but also because they are already known to historians of science to be factually incorrect.

By highlighting the profound dependence of the double helix model upon Franklin’s work, the play joins those who raised questions as to why the scientific community continues to misallocate credit for this discovery for half a century. Though not as dramatic as “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, at which audiences of hundreds gasp at once when the mathematician’s daughter tells his male student heirs “I did not find the proof in my father’s drawer; I wrote it,” Photograph 51 exposes the audience to the perspective of a woman scientist who made a major discovery on her own, not as the daughter, wife, or relative of a male scientist. The play also caters to post-feminist sensibilities by suggesting that even a woman who prioritized a career in science over marriage can eventually meet a man who can both understand her passion for discovery and be romantically involved with her; this is so, especially if she is smart enough to look at younger men.

Finally, Photo 51 also raises more general questions on the usefulness of such theatrical dramatizations for STEM initiatives, along with stimulating historians of science to reexamine a historiography that has accepted too easily the scientists’ version of discovery. In conclusion, despite its dependence on historiographically outdated material (the lack of collaboration between Franklin and Wilkins, or these materials’ key role in the case of Crick and Watson, pillars of the play and of the received view, are both red herrings, invoked to justify problematic outcomes) and its avoidance of many other key issues in the discovery of DNA structure, as a comparison with the BBC movie Life Story, (1987) can easily reveal, this play can be seen as breaking new ground by calling attention to the key role of gender in the process and outcome of a major discovery.

From a more personal perspective, I hope that the play will prove useful in preparing the public, including historians of science and scientists, for a new, more radical interpretation of the history of the discovery of DNA structure. Soon audiences will need to cope with the historical evidence that I have been assembling for my book DNA at 50, evidence that is bound to surprise those who believe that we already know how the discovery of DNA’s structure was made. Unlike the playwright, I do not need to use artistic license for the simple reason that the actual history of this discovery proved to be dramatic in its own right.


1 The play’s run was February 9 to March 18, 2012; for information on the playwright, director, and actors in this production see CentralSquareTheatre.org; see also the review in the Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/
. The play had previously been staged in LA and WDC, where it was also well received.

2 http://www.hssonline.org/Meeting/oldmeetings/archiveprogs/
 [co-organized with Bill Summers of Yale]

3 Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, 2003, was better received than Rosalind Franklin and DNA; (Anne Sayre, 1975) the latter was initially dismissed as a “feminist plot,” but was reissued in 2000. One of the speakers in our HSS session in 2003, Lynn Osman Elkin, a Professor of Biology at UC-Berkeley, is transforming Sayre’s book into an educational manual. Her talk was based on her essay, “Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix,” Physics Today, March 2003, 42-48. She also served as a consultant to the namesake PBS documentary.

4 For example, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology with James D. Watson for their work on DNA, succeeded in blocking the latter’s The Double Helix, A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA Structure from being published by Harvard University Press but they did not object to a commercial press. Crick referred to it as a “pack of nonsense.” But the pertinent correspondence on the controversy surrounding the 1968 publication became available at a much later time.

5 Elkin 2003, Maddox 2003, Sayre 1975, op.cit. These authors were concerned to establish Franklin’s centrality rather than providing a full historical account of the discovery of DNA structure. I aim to provide such an account in my forthcoming book, DNA at 50: From Memory to History, which reexamines all the various players, both known and unknown, in the discovery of DNA structure, including Franklin, in light of new archival sources.

6 The discoverer, John H. Spelke died accidentally on the day of a projected debate with Francis F. Burton, who then proceeded to claim the discovery for himself. To this day Burton is known as the Victorian explorer who solved a riddle that preoccupied civilization since ancient Greek and Roman times, while the actual discoverer remained obscured for a century and a half. See Tim Jeal, Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. (2011)

7 Photo 51 is so far the more successful among several plays written on Rosalind Franklin. Commissioned in 2008 it won the STAGE prize for plays on science and technology.

8 Dan Aucoin, The Boston Globe, 2-15-2012 (bostonglobe.com/arts/2012/02/15)

9 By Michael Frayn. (London: Methuen Drama, 1998) For its resonance among historians of science see “Copenhagen and Beyond: The Interconnections between Science, Drama, and History,” Seminar at the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI) organized by Finn Aaserud, Director of NBI Archive, November 19, 1999; “Drama Meets History of Science,” Symposium, NBI Archive, September 22-23, 2001. Mara Beller, Cathy Carson, Mathias Dorries, Robert Friedman, Jan Golinsky, Klaus Henschel, among others, address the issue of “blurred genres” in the dramatization of episodes from the history of science in ways that are suggestive for my analysis of Photo 51. See also “Creating Copenhagen, A Symposium Exploring Scientific, Historical, and Theatrical Perspectives Surrounding the Events of the Acclaimed Play ‘Copenhagen’, GC-CUNY, New York City, March 27, 2000, Chris Smith and Brian B. Schwartz, “producers.”

10 For other such cases see, for example, that of a woman scientist at an Ivy League university in the Northeast who complained that she felt mugged when the lab director put his name, as well as those of his three male protégées, on a discovery that she had made and was trying to publish; she was told to be content since she had not been raped; for further details see Catherine Brady, Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres, (The MIT Press, 2007) p. 43. The issue of misallocation of scientific credit affects of course both women and men, but this play deals with misallocation affecting a woman.

11 Nelson Pressley, “Theater Review: ‘Photograph 51’ at Theater J,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2011.

12 Nature Reviews – Molecular Cell Biology, 3, January 2002, 65-70.

13 See Maddox 2003 for information on Franklin’s many relatives in public life.

14 E.g. The Boston Globe, 2-15-2012; The Washington Post, 4-4-2011; Los Angeles Chronicle, 3-31-2009; among other theatre specific outlets, e.g. DC Theatre Scene, see note 16.

15 Trey Graham, “Theatre J discovers DNA”, Washingtoncitypaper.com (4-1-11)

16 Steven McKnight, dctheatrescene.com, 3-31-11.

17 In 2003, the British government marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s structure as “50 years of excellence in British science” and included Rosalind Franklin among the (now four) discoverers. In my above-mentioned book I also include Rosalind Franklin as a discoverer, a conclusion that differs from the current historiographic status-quo, as to the number of discoverers.


Photo 51—A Recent Addition to History-of-Science-Inspired Theatre

Pnina G. Abir-Am, Brandeis University Newsletter of the History of Science Society, Vol. 41, No. 3, July 2012


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