Kevin Berger in Nautilus:
James Watson once said his road to the 1962 Nobel Prize began in Naples, Italy. At a conference in 1951, he met Maurice Wilkins, the biophysicist with whom he and Francis Crick shared the Nobel for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. Meeting Wilkins was when he “first realized that DNA might be soluble,” Watson said. “So my life was changed.” That’s a nice anecdote for the science textbooks. But there’s “a tawdry first act to this operetta,” writes Howard Markel in his new book, The Secret of Life, about the drama behind the scenes of the famous discovery. At the time, Watson was an arrogant, gawky 22-year-old, working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen. His biology lab director, Herman Kalckar, invited Watson and another fellow in the lab, Barbara Wright, to accompany him to the Naples conference. The confident and competitive Watson didn’t think much of Wright’s work. It was “rather inexact,” he sniped. But Watson was pleased to be invited on the trip. “It should be quite exciting,” he wrote his parents.
Watson was bored with most of the presentations at the conference. But he perked up when Wilkins projected images of DNA, captured with X-ray crystallography. The novel image showed the molecule arose from a crystalline structure. Watson later tried to buddy up to Wilkins at a cocktail party, but the socially awkward Wilkins did his best to avoid the bumptious American. Watson thought he had another opening when he spotted Wilkins chatting with his sister, who had joined Watson in Naples. But when Watson approached them, Wilkins slipped away.
Nonetheless, Watson’s encounter with Wilkins cemented his future. He was determined to discover the precise molecular structure of DNA. He knew he had little chance to join Wilkins at his lab at King’s College at the University of London, mainly because Wilkins didn’t like him. Watson set his sights on joining the other prominent biology lab probing molecular structures. At Cavendish Laboratory Biophysics Unit at Cambridge, Watson met the intellectually unstoppable Crick, and in two years, the duo built the first sound model of DNA’s structure. Their model showed the world how DNA did its thing and shaped the course of biological life.
In The Secret of Life, Markel, a distinguished professor in the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, and author of nonfiction books that roll along like novels, relishes explaining the backstory to Watson’s and Wilkins’ first encounter. Turns out Kalckar was having an affair with Wright and wanted to keep their trysts secret. Watson was invited to Naples “to act as a beard for his boss, to provide cover for his affair with Wright,” Markel told me in a recent interview. In The Secret of Life, Markel writes, “one cannot help but smile at the paradox that the unraveling of the double helix of DNA began with the coupling of Kalckar and Wright.”