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The Evangelist of Molecular Biology 

Algis Valiunas

James D. Watson is the most famous American scientist since J. Robert Oppenheimer, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. That his name will roll throughout history in tandem with that of Francis Crick, his English collaborator at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, does not diminish its luster, and may even enhance it somewhat. For an achievement like the 1953 discovery of the structure and basic function of DNA, there is glory enough to go around.

It might indeed be too much for a single man to shoulder. Francis and Crick are certainly an inseparable pair in the public mind, and the association has even confused some persons who clearly ought to know better. In 1955, shortly after Nevill Francis Mott had become the new head of the Cavendish, Crick said he’d like to introduce him to Watson, who had recently returned to Cambridge from Caltech. Mott was flummoxed. “Watson? Watson? I thought your name was Watson-Crick.”

It did take some time for the momentous discovery to make the rounds, even among distinguished scientists. But in due course it became common knowledge of a sort. As Crick relates in his memoir What Mad Pursuit, the physical chemist Paul Doty was traveling to New York around 1960, when lapel buttons had become the latest thing, and, in amazement, he saw one for sale proclaiming “DNA.” Certain that this was some fashionable slogan unknown to him — something quite different from what the letters signified to scientists — he asked the sidewalk vendor what it meant. “Get with it, Bud,” the salesman replied. “Dat’s the gene.”

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Algis Valiunas is a New Atlantis contributing editor and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writings are collected at AlgisValiunas.com.

Algis Valiunas, "The Evangelist of Molecular Biology," The New Atlantis, Number 53, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 69-107.