Definitive biography of James Watson, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his discovery with Francis Crick of DNA’s double helix shape.
In the portrait painted by veteran science writer McElheny (Insisting on the Impossible, 1998) passion drives his subject’s life. No, not the amatory passions that Watson himself so blatantly confessed to in Genes, Girls, and Gamow (2002), or the competitive passion to win the race he described in The Double Helix (1968); Watson’s ruling passion is for science, for really, really good science that addresses truly important problems. The author, who worked for Watson for a time at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, interviewed his old boss, along with scores of great and near-great admirers and detractors. So Watson emerges with all his quirks and mannerisms, the nervous laugh and the blurting out of words that hurt, as a man with uncanny skills at catching and driving the next big wave, whether for tumor viruses, biotechnology, or the human genome project. His gossipy knowledge of who was where doing what that was new and interesting helped him elevate CSHL to its own special jewel-in-the-crown status. It may surprise readers who know only Watson’s brash side to learn that he was also able to charm the CSHL board and the lab’s very rich North Shore neighbors into mega-endowments. But McElheny makes it clear that Watson at times needed a savior, a role assumed in the latter part of the book by Rockefeller University’s Norton Zinder, onetime rival and lifelong worrying friend. In telling Watson’s story, McElheny touches on the major findings of molecular biology over the past half-century. Although this can be a little confusing, since the people and events do not always tally with the strict chronology of his life (some scientists, for example, are introduced several times in different contexts), the broad scope makes sense.
A powerful contribution to the history and culture of molecular biology as well as a fitting tribute to one of its principal progenitors.