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A Science History Snippet : my time in molecular biology

The cover of James Watson's famous book about the even-more famous research into molecular biology that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA

I prefer to spend most of my spare time these days talking to the salmon gums in my arboretum at Gwambygine, far removed from the hubbub of science and academia.

But there was a time when I was involved in these things, and drinking from the font of the world’s foremost scientific research. I was reminded of this when I read that this year is the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson, at Cambridge in 1953. And I recalled how enthralled I had been when reading Watson’s account of this revolutionary discovery in his book The Double Helix – enthralled, I might add, despite the fact that Watson’s story dealt was mostly with the sort of esoteric science about which I am comprehensively ignorant.

Watson’s book also tells the inside story about the intrigues and interpersonal jealousies and feuds that surrounded the DNA research back then, and I smile when I read this stuff, because it remains a characteristic of the scientists and academics I often deal with today.

I have his book in my bookcase to this day, and getting it out this morning, I see that it was a birthday present from my brother, in October 1968, the year it was published.

Thinking about all this took me back in a flash to the autumn of 1965, and the grey, rain-swept campus of the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. I was a post-graduate student, doing my Master’s degree in forestry. One wintry day I saw on the Faculty Notice Board an announcement of an upcoming seminar on molecular biology to be given by the great Dr Crick himself, over in the Biochemistry School. Although at that time, Watson’s book was still to be written, I did already know about Crick. He had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize, and his work with Watson on the structure of DNA had caused a sensation when I was an undergraduate a few years earlier. I had been fascinated by the process of the discovery, as well as the way the new knowledge about DNA explained key mysteries in plant and animal breeding, to say nothing of evolution and human genetics. So, despite the fact that my knowledge of molecular biology was limited (I had studied the elements of organic chemistry and biochemistry as part of my forestry degree), I decided to attend the seminar.

Dr Crick turned out to be a tall, shambling figure and he spoke in the sort of high-pitched, drawling, upper-class English accent which Australians find irritating and Americans are always trying, unsuccessfully, to mimic. But his fame was undoubted, and on the morning of his presentation, the scene at the Biochemistry School was a lively one; academics and students from all over the campus were streaming in. The lecture theatre was a large one, and was it was packed.

Dr Francis Crick, in lecturing mode (picture from Wikipedia)

Crick was briefly introduced by the Dean, and he rose, said "Good Morning" and then spoke for nearly two hours, without notes, almost without drawing breath, and mostly with his back to the audience. His subject matter, I gathered, was some narrow and obscure problem in molecular biology. These were still the days of chalk and blackboards (or “chalkboards” as they are called these days by the politically-correct), and under Dr Crick’s frantic fingers, the chalk dust flew, and three large blackboards were filled twice-over with his rapid-fire scrawl of complex equations, biochemical formulae, arrows, chalk-snapping exclamation marks and intricate diagrams of molecular structures. Between the time he stood up and said “Good morning” and the time when he later sat down, having said “thank you”, I did not understand a word he said.

There was a moment of silence. The Dean asked whether there were any questions. There were no questions.

Like me, I suspect ninety-nine percent of the audience also found the lecture incomprehensible. Again like me, they were there on false pretences.

Nevertheless, Dr Crick was warmly applauded, and as we filed out of the lecture theatre afterwards there was a palpable feeling amongst us that we were a group of distinguished scientists who had communed with one of the great men of 20th century research.

The inner glow of this self-deception has lasted me over fifty years, and can still be detected from time to time, when I am recounting the story to my salmon gums.

Dr Francis Crick and Dr James Watson, taking a walk along The Backs, at Cambridge, in 1953

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