As a new edition of The Double Helix hits bookshelves, Boing-Boing's Maggie Koerth-Baker takes the opportunity to interview James Watson about his characterization of Rosalind Franklin, who, Koerth-Baker says, "is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature" and referred to throughout as "Rosy," even though that was not a nickname she used.
Answering questions by email, Watson admits that his perception of Franklin was "colored" by his friendship with Maurice Wilkins, who was openly hostile toward her.
As the new edition of the book illustrates, the friction between Franklin and Wilkins was largely due to miscommunication. While Wilkins believed Franklin was hired to be his assistant, a letter from their department head, John Randall, published in the new edition indicates that she was actually hired to lead the DNA project.
"Reading Watson's perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn't communicating very well with either Franklin or Wilkins," Koerth-Baker says.
Watson tells her that the Randall letter "makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why — that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin."
Would Watson portray Franklin any differently if he were to write the book today?
"I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe," he tells Koerth-Baker. "But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin."
In addition, he says, "I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice," which is "made vivid" in another letter reproduced in the book.