Double Helix Double Cross

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick, racing against the chemist Linus Pauling and several others for the Nobel Prize, discovered the helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). As told in Watson's classic memoir, The Double Helix, it is a tale of boundless ambition, impatience with authority and disdain for received opinion. "A goodly number of scientists," Watson remarked, "are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid."

Case in point: Maurice Wilkins, a stuffy biologist at King's College, London who was also working on DNA -- with a precocious feminist named Rosalind Franklin, who was creating the world's best X-ray diffraction pictures of DNA. Such was the extent of their mutual animosity that Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin's critical (unpublished) pictures. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open," Watson later recalled. "It gave several of the vital helical parameters..."

[As it happened, the Nobel Prize for the discovery was given (in 1962) to Watson, Crick and Wilkins (and would certainly have gone to Franklin had she not died in the interim).]

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