Collaboration Essay Example: The Double Helix

Collaborative work is the process of multiple people accumulating their research to reach a conclusion. In James D. Watson’s The Double Helix, he recounted the series of events with his partner, Francis Crick, that lead to the discovery of the shape of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Watson and Crick went on to win a Nobel Prize for their breakthrough. However, a large portion of their work resulted from shared ideas with other people. Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and many others all participated in finding the structure of DNA through discussing theories, evidence, and conclusions. Although only Watson and Crick were given recognition for their discovery, their work was a collaborative effort beyond their own findings.

Watson unintentionally shared and received knowledge on various theories through his acrimonious relationship with Rosalind Franklin. Despite his portrayal of tense communication with Franklin, he utilized her ideas in his own work. Through her experiments with X-ray crystallography, she found that “the sugar-phosphate backbone was on the outside of the molecule”. Watson criticized her claim, questioning if the “assertion had any scientific basis”. Ultimately, Watson and Crick’s model demonstrated the sugar-phosphate backbone, yet failed to mention the correct claim from Franklin.

Perhaps the animosity between himself and Franklin clouded his judgement as he focused on the tension between them rather than the collaboration. According to Watson, he had ample reason to be cautious around Franklin, as he feared that “in her hot anger she might strike”. His unease about Franklin disrupted his focus from the discussion, but he subconsciously managed to retain the information on the sugar-phosphate backbone. Watson and Crick’s discovery extended beyond their own work; a portion of it was based off the research by Franklin. 

Watson eschewed from learning mathematics and chemistry which caused him to rely on outside resources to compensate for his lack of skills. Max Perutz and John Kendrew aided him to haste his research in X-ray crystallography. Watson was relieved, “all [he] needed to do was read a crystallographic text”. It may appear that Watson collaborated with Perutz and Kendrew, however, his tone implies that he succeeded in avoiding extra work. Two people allowed him to circumvent the tedious work to get ahead in the race to discover the structure of DNA. Furthermore, Watson made practical use of a theory presented by Erwin Chargaff.  Chargaff stated that DNA samples have relative proportions of adenine to thymine, and guanine to cytosine. Watson capitalized off this theory when constructing the base-pairs in his model. Once again, he avoided learning mathematical ideas while relying on someone else for the information.  

Watson and Crick Trying to Discover the DNA Structure

After having collaborated during the initial theories, Watson and Crick used data from other scientists to skip “six months’ to a year’s work”. In order to achieve victory in the race to discover the structure of DNA, Watson and Crick obtained data from Maurice Wilkins to gain an advantage. Wilkins had “quietly been duplicating some of Rosy’s X-ray work”, which he then presented to Watson. The pictures that Wilkins duplicated strongly supported a helical shape. In the account by Watson, the evidence was not “of major significance” to Wilkins. Watson may have misinterpreted this statement to imply that the helical structure was common knowledge.

In turn, Watson justified the duplication of the work of Franklin, claimed it as overwhelming evidence, and used it to build his own model. Here, one should question the reliability of Watson as a narrator. He suppressed the reproduction of the X-ray pictures by briefly mentioning it in one sentence; quickly changing the topic to confer the implications of the data. Watson may have chosen this style to increase the anticipation of the discovery. Consequently, he omitted parts of his collaboration, which thus inflated himself. 

Upon utilizing the theories and evidence from others, Watson and Crick created a double helix model of DNA, and had various people scrutinize the structure. Significant scientists involved in this verification included: Sir Lawrence Bragg, John Kendrew, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin. Each figure, with their own credentials, supported the model. For example, Bragg agreed with the base-pairs, even though he was ignorant of the theory by Chargaff. Franklin presented her own crystallographic evidence which “strongly supported the double helix”. The consistent validation of the DNA model reassured Watson and suppressed his doubts. The collaboration extended even past the discovery, thus pushing beyond the work of Watson and Crick.


There were instances where Watson conducted his own research rather than rely on other people. He investigated the nucleic acid inside the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). Though, he studied ribonucleic acid (RNA) instead of DNA, hoping to “provide the vital clue to DNA”. He found that the RNA in TMV was helical; a breakthrough which may have solved DNA. With this major discovery, Watson could link it to DNA. However, after a miniscule critique from Crick, he quickly abandoned his idea and stated, “the way to DNA was not through TMV”. The terse statement portrayed the adamant belief of Watson. Although he was capable of performing his own research, his efforts remained fruitless as he deserted his own conclusions. Watson ultimately receded back to relying off of other people. Through this account, Watson succeeds in augmenting the suspense in the memoir. He exemplified a trial and error when he was alone. However, by highlighting his own failure, he demonstrated the need and benefit of collaborating outside of his own work. 

Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery. However, in order to find out the shape of DNA, it took the efforts of a multitude of outside resources and scientists. This raises the larger topic of the exploration of new knowledge. Watson and Crick utilized physical models to uncover the shape of DNA, while other researchers, such as Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography. This implies that there exists a variety of methods to achieve the same outcome in scientific knowledge. The work of Watson and Crick was based off prior knowledge as well, which further suggests that the prior knowledge was built off other ideas. Perhaps, as told by The Double Helix, scientific knowledge is almost always collaborative, whether it is discussed through theories, evidence, or conclusions.

Works Cited

Watson, James Dewey. The Double Helix. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968.



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