Double helix double take

It's not often that you get to witness a major scientific figure watch his own theatrical indictment.

Oct 24, 2005
Ishani Ganguli

It's not often that you get to witness a major scientific figure watch his own theatrical indictment. But at the 2005 annual Sloan Film Summit presented by the Tribeca Film Institute in New York earlier this month, the attendance of Nobel laureate James Watson provides just that opportunity.

The afternoon opened with a panel discussion on "Good Science in Good Films" in which Watson revealed that he had been "upset" by Jeff Goldblum's depiction of him in the 1987 film The Race for the Double Helix. "I thought he was unpleasant," he said. But he quickly conceded that "a friend of mine did say I was unpleasant at the time. You're bound to seem crazy to most people."

Despite this familiarity with unflattering publicity, Watson didn't seem prepared for the final excerpt in a series of readings from upcoming science-based films of a screenplay entitled The Broken Code. Watson himself was not depicted in the excerpt, but the real-life version watched from the back of the Directors Guild of America Theater, mouth open, blinking incredulously, with the occasional wry grin. The script dramatizes the quest of Rosalind Franklin's close friend Anne Sayre to reveal Franklin's true role in the discovery of DNA's structure, a direct to response Watson's less-than-generous account of the King's College scientist in his uninhibited 1968 memoir The Double Helix, written 10 years after Franklin's death.

The performance featured director Peter Bogdanovich, and the cross-dressing British comedian Eddie Izzard in the more muted roles of both Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick. In it, the softly indignant Sayre, voiced by Rosemarie DeWitt, says, "Watson lied about her ... Why did he need to slander a dead woman?" When Sayre goes to Wilkins to find out the truth, he calls Watson "the snoop" who filched Franklin's X-ray diffraction results, without which he and Crick could not have solved the structure. Finally, Crick calls The Double Helix "a contemptible pack of damn nonsense," saying that Rosalind could have easily solved the structure herself. "It was lucky for us it turned out the way it did," he says.

After the performance, Watson's self-preserving reactions jumped from that of the sore winner ("Well, we figured out the structure") to the misunderstood ("I wrote the book as novel") to the almost apologetic ("I might have been wrong about Rosalind"), as the screenplay's author, David Baxter, stood by with placatory words, assuring Watson that the rest of the screenplay would mitigate his concerns. Despite Watson's assertion that he "didn't know Rosalind well," he proffered a psychiatric diagnosis for her: Asperger syndrome, the autistic spectrum disorder, which he insisted is common among women who are talented at science. "She found it very hard to make new acquaintances," Watson says. "Rosalind was very bad at absorbing social cues."

But that idea is "absurd and unfounded," writes Lynne Osman Elkin, who is the film's science advisor and is writing a biography entitled Rosalind Franklin and The Double Helix, in an E-mail. "I never heard a whisper of this suggestion." Ever since The Double Helix was published, of course, critics have pointed out inaccuracies and exaggerations, and what many called Watson's misogynistic treatment of "Rosy." Watson later wrote an epilogue to his book, a syrupy but perfunctory tribute to the late Franklin's scientific acumen, which he also pointed out in his defense.

Watson called the real Sayre "a battleaxe" who was not nearly as attractive as the actress playing her. But in the end, he said, "as far as I know, [there was] no hostility" between himself and Franklin, citing an amicable dinner they shared at Linus Pauling's house shortly before her death. And he conceded that "if Francis had had an hour with her," she would have figured out the structure herself. After all, he said, "the first model we proposed was crappy."