Early Impressions of The Double Helix

One thing that I have learned about Dr. Watson as a writer is that he is not shy about sharing unfinished drafts with colleagues.  We have scores of letters from the likes of Paul Doty, Tom Maniatis, and Matt Meselson commenting on early versions of Avoid Boring People.  He also famously shared drafts of The Double Helix with Crick and Wilkins, who were, somewhat understandingly, appalled.

As part of the "Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics" digitization project, we will soon be making these letters freely available online for the first time.


I found one particular set of letters regarding an early draft of The Double Helix very interesting.  Watson had sent a copy of the manuscript to an acquaintance in the summer of 1965, who subsequently sent a series of letters back to Watson documenting her delight with the draft.  Her name was Suzanne Reeder, had just left Cambridge (Massachusetts), and was obviously close with Watson.  The letters start in July 1965.  She mentions attending a conference in Berlin, as well as meeting Odile Crick in Cambridge sometime earlier, before returning home to England.  Towards the end of the letter she indicates that she will be flying back to the states, and then asks for a copy of the book.

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Watson apparently swore Suzanne to secrecy -- he clearly knew that the book would be controversial.

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Her initial impressions of Crick are quite positive: "You make Francis sound tremendous -- he gets better as one reads on."

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Suzanne anticipates that Watson will have trouble publishing the memoir: "What a pity you can't print it as written."

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She was also acquainted with Walter Gilbert, and discusses problems with his repressor research below.  "I shall be quite sad to think of all his work unrewarded -- all those sleepless hours in the cold room."  He was rewarded, about 25 years later, with a Nobel Prize.

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Her impressions of Crick clearly change as the book progresses:  "The more I read, the more I think Francis must just be horrifying.  I sewed a piece of his dressing gown [presumably a memento from her meeting with Odile] into my quilt yesterday and I think that's as close as I'd want to get to him"

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She also mentions Watson's great success with his other famous work, the Molecular Biology of the Gene.  Watson tends to work on multiple projects at the same time.  Both MBotG and The Double Helix were written in the early 1960s.  Genes, Girls, and Gamow and Avoid Boring People were both written throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.  When he assumed the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory he remained a professor at Harvard, and he served as head of the U.S. Human Genome Project while still leading CSHL.

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She didn't get to read the finished work in 1965.  Watson was traveling across Africa meeting with local scientists and giving lectures for the Ford Foundation, and did not have time to complete the manuscript as of yet.  Suzanne ends the letters prophetically: "I am absolutely certain that the book contains libel - which is tragic, since the libelous bits are so hilarious.  I hope the lawyer doesn't mutilate it too much."

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