search by author or title

The Secret of Life

Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA's Double Helix


Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D. (View Bio)
Hardcover: W. W. Norton & Co., 2021.

The Secret of Life

Biologist James Watson and physicist Francis Crick’s 1953 revelation about the double helix structure of DNA is the foundation of virtually every advance in our modern understanding of genetics and molecular biology. But how did Watson and Crick do it?and why were they the ones who succeeded?

In truth, the discovery of DNA’s structure is the story of a race among five scientists for advancement, fame, and immortality: Watson, Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and Linus Pauling. They were fascinating and brilliant, with strong personalities that often clashed. But it is Rosalind Franklin who becomes a focal point for Howard Markel. The Secret of Life is a story of genius and perseverance, but also a saga of cronyism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and misconduct. Markel brilliantly recounts the intense intellectual journey, and the fraught personal relationships, that resulted in the discovery of DNA

Dr. Markel has written a definitive history of the race to unravel DNA's structure.

“Best Nonfiction Book of the Year”—Kirkus Reviews
An AudioFile Magazine "Best Audiobook of 2021"
With 65 illustrations!

"A medical historian offers a new history of one of the 20th century’s most significant scientific quests. The structure of DNA, announced in 1953 by James Watson and Francis Crick, marked the beginning of the spectacular genetics revolution that has continually accelerated since then. There is no shortage of excellent histories, but Markel, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, has written one of the best. After a quick review of the relevant advancements in the 19th century, the author delivers long, satisfying biographies of the leading figures as well as a large supporting cast, including Linus Pauling and John Randall, who directed the biophysics unit at King’s College in London. Markel provides a meticulous account of DNA research by others, as well, and he emphasizes that Watson and Crick made their breakthrough by examining X-ray photographs of DNA crystals. Producing such crystals required extraordinary dexterity, and photographing them demanded acute technical expertise, which often included building X-ray machines from scratch. The X-ray experts were Maurice Wilkins (who shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick) and Rosalind Franklin, recruited in 1950 when Wilkins seemed to be stalled. Nearly every historian in this area explores the intense dislike between Wilkins and Franklin; all, Markel included, deliver reasonable, if differing explanations. Watson famously disparaged her in his 1968 bestseller, The Double Helix, ('he transmogrified her into "Rosy," the one-dimensional archenemy') but Markel turns up admirers. In the end, Watson and Crick examined X-rays (Franklin’s were better than Wilkins’), built their model, and went down in history. Franklin died in 1958, and the others barely mentioned her in their 30-minute Nobel Prize lectures in 1962. Nowadays, everyone agrees that she was treated badly and that her work—examined without her permission ('one of the most egregious ripoffs in the history of science')—was essential to the discovery, but during her life, she never expressed resentment. A brilliant addition to the literature on the history of biological discovery." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"One of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century was also the scientific heist of the century, according to this action-packed history. Historian Markel recreates the 1953 elucidation of DNA’s structure by Cambridge University’s James Watson and Francis Crick and their rivalry with the King’s College team of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. While for decades history books have attributed the discovery to Watson and Crick, it really wasn’t so simple, Markel writes—their discovery was based on Franklin’s research that was ‘borrowed’ by Watson. Markel skillfully explains the knotty science behind the breakthrough and highlights the clash of outsize personalities: the mercurial, loudmouthed physicist Crick; the nerdy, manipulative molecular biologist Watson; the prickly X-ray crystallographer Franklin; the ‘high- strung, bumbling’ biophysicist Wilkins; and the world-renowned chemist Linus Pauling (who threatened to beat them all). Markel decries Watson and Crick’s secret appropriation of Franklin’s X-ray data as ‘one of the most egregious rip- offs in scientific history’ and the culmination of her ‘oppression’ by ‘white, entitled, English academic lords.’ His tone sometimes feels overblown, but his tart, sharp-eyed prose—’Chargaff was unimpressed by Crick’s nonstop blathering, not to mention Watson’s Greek chorus of eye-bulging and snorting’— saves the day. This wonderfully evocative tale sings." — Publishers Weekly

"Much has been written about James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s “borrowing” of Rosalind Franklin’s research into the structure of DNA. Howard Markel — physician, professor and gifted writer — tells the story again, setting scenes and shrewdly capturing the character and motivations of the central players. Though not every listener will grasp the scientific detail completely, Markel makes the gist and implication of these matters very clear, and his depiction of the clash of personalities is superb." — Katherine A. Powers, The Washington Post  (Read the full review)

"This collective biography attempts to strip away the hyperbole that has grown up around the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. Markel begins the book with a brief sketch of the history of the field now known as genetics and recounts the early lives and careers of the scientists Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins, and Linus Pauling. This sets the stage for Markel’s detailed examination of the research on X-ray diffraction at Kings College, London, and the theoretical work done at the Cavendish Lab at Cambridge in the early 1950s.... Markel unifies the timeline and gives voice to the scientific and personal thoughts of the principal scientists, found in their correspondence, lab notebooks, memoirs, and interviews. Markel’s book portrays each scientist as a complex individual and is firm in the conclusion that Franklin was denied due credit for the DNA discovery.... [An] enjoyable account." — Library Journal (starred review)

"In The Secret of Life, Markel, a distinguished professor in the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, and author of nonfiction books that roll along like novels, relishes explaining the backstory to Watson’s and Wilkins’ first encounter.... Markel writes, 'Buried under layers of interpretation, explanations, and obfuscation, the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure is one of the most misunderstood whodunnits in the history of science.' At the end of the book, I was pleased to feel that I understood who had done it." — Kevin Berger, Nautilus  (Read the full review)

"A cinematic account of toxic masculinity among 1950s DNA researchers – and a celebration of scientist Rosalind Franklin.... She probably would have hated being the heroine of a movie, but we’re fortunate to have books such as this to put her back in the picture." — Katy Guest, The Guardian  (Read the full review)

Up Back to Top