Climbing Mount Irascible

(photograph by Istvan Hargittai)

If the scientific autobiography belongs to “a most awkward literary genre,” the scientific book review must belong to a decidedly tedious one. And Erwin Chargaff’s review of Watson’s The Double Helix is the exception that proves the rule.

In 1968, Gunther Stent (a contemporary of Jim Watson and a fellow member of the Phage Group) wrote a review called What they are saying about Honest Jim in the Quarterly Review of Biology (Vol. 43-2, 1968) (DOI: This piece was what one might call a meta-review – a “review of the reviewers” – where Stent turns over (at times a bit testily) various published commentary about Watson’s book. Stent subsequently adapted his meta-review for the the Norton Critical Edition of The Double Helix that he edited which includes all the reviews that he comments on.

(Note: Interestingly, Jerry Donohue – yet another character in Watson’s book – wrote a similar meta-review in the Quarterly Review… (Vol. 51-2, 1976) ( this time of Anne Sayre’s biography of Rosalind Franklin – Rosalind Franklin and DNA).)

The reviewers in The Double Helix make for a scraggly bunch: eminent biologists – Richard Lewontin (evolutionary biologist), P. B. Medowar (immunologist), Conrad Waddington (embryologist) and André Lwoff (microbiologist); philosophers of science – Bronowski, Merton; as well as various writers – Ellmann, Lear, Morrison. And also, for some reason, one by Alex Comfort (The Joy of Sex).

Notable in its absence from the book was Erwin Chargaff’s own review A quick climb up Mount Olympus which was published in Science. You could ask what on earth the editors of Science were thinking when they commissioned a book review from someone who not only appears in the book, but is a figure of derision. One suspects that their motivations were somewhat akin to children throwing a box of fireworks into a blazing pit just to see what would happen. This was 1968 – fifteen years after Watson and Crick’s first Nature paper, six years after the DNA/protein Nobel Prizes were doled out. To Chargaff, the publication of The Double Helix must have felt like salt being rubbed into a festering wound. He would not grant permission to have his review included in the Watson book, so we are left with Stent’s – somewhat awkward – paraphrase.

Stent writes:

To some readers, unfamiliar with Chargaff’s speeches and writings, his review must have seemed surprisingly sarcastic; to other readers, aware of Chargaff’s long-standing lack of appreciation for the achievements of Watson and Crick in particular and for the working style of molecular biology in general, the review may have seemed unexpectedly mild.

Stent is spot-on here. If you are used to reading the usual run-of-the-mill book reviews in Science, A quick climb up Mount Olympus reads like a vicious, angry attack. But anyone familiar with Chargaff (for instance, his memoir, Heraclitean Fire), the review seems – well – a bit tepid.

Yet, perhaps pre-warned by the editors, perhaps simply more careful given the size of the megaphone, or perhaps having convinced himself of the efficacy of a more modest strategy, Chargaff still manages to flourish an extremely sharp carving blade.

As one might expect, his is a buttery start, an almost sentimental defense of Rosalind Franklin – by then, already dead ten years.

I knew Miss Franklin personally, as I have known almost all the others appearing in this book; she was a good scientist and made crucial contributions to the understanding of the structure of DNA. A careful reading of even of this book will bear this out.

Sentimental, perhaps. But not without intent. And it is also telling that he refers to her as “Miss Franklin” – this is 1968 after all, and even her defenders could not quite see her as an equal.

But Chargaff is not one for a sympathetic touch, and spends his valuable Science space in more familiar territory, wielding that knife. He accuses both Watson and Max Perutz, somewhat cagily, of ethically suspect behavior:

The workers at King’s College, and especially Miss Franklin, were naturally reluctant to slake the Cavendish couple’s thirst for other people’s knowledge, before they themselves had had time to consider the meaning of their findings. The evidence found its way, however, to Cambridge.

The obvious implication here – very much not stated – is that the “Cavendish couple” were very much in the habit of “slaking their thirst for other people’s knowledge,” including, no doubt, Chargaff’s own. A famous meeting between Chargaff and the “Cavendish couple” is mentioned in both The Double Helix and Heraclitean Fire, and in the latter the passage ends, rather plaintively, with “I told them all I knew,” followed by: “I believe that the double-stranded model of DNA came about as a consequence of our conversation; but such things are only susceptible of a later judgment: Quando iudex est veturus, Cuncta stricte discussurus.

In his charge of unethical conduct, Chargaff quotes the passage from Watson’s book where Perutz shows the “Cavendish couple” his copy of a Medical Research Council report containing Rosalind Franklin’s summary of her data. (This, in turn, drew letters of protest from both Watson and Perutz which are also included in the Stent edition).

In Chargaff’s review, he judges Watson’s memoir as largely trivial (a judgment as much of the author as the book): “… we are made to look through a keyhole at scenes with which we have no business. This is perhaps unavoidable in an autobiography; but then the intensity of vision must redeem the banality of content.”

But if he is made to look through a keyhole, Chargaff is quite happy to speak of the banality that he witnesses as long as it casts the author in an unfavorable light – for instance, Watson’s decision to go the cinema to witness Hedy Lamarr’s “romps in the nude” in Ecstasy. A movie that Chargaff describes as “rather poor.”

(Note: the film can be seen here)

Chargaff’s review is a delectable piece of bitchiness, nastier even than the famously nasty book it reviews. Perhaps by 1968, he was resigned to the idea that he would be forever framed as the “loser” in a race that he never asked to participate in, but it simply was not in his nature to go down without a fight. And fight he did.