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Products for grant FEL-267727-20

A Biography of James D. Watson (b. 1928), American Molecular Biologist and Geneticist
Nathaniel Comfort, Johns Hopkins University

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Cold Spring Harbor, The Double Helix, and the Origins of Molecular Biology (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Cold Spring Harbor, The Double Helix, and the Origins of Molecular Biology
Author: Nathaniel Comfort
Abstract: Molecular biology is the most self-conscious, most memoired, most mythologized science perhaps ever, and it has its Scriptures. For better and/or worse, James Watson’s bestselling memoir, The Double Helix (1968), undergirds all our histories of molecular biology. Phage and the Origins of Molecular Biology (or PATOOMB), the 1966 festschrift for Max Delbrück, edited by Watson, Gunther Stent, and John Cairns and published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, established another foundational narrative of molecular biology, the idea that the “phage group,” led by Max Delbrück, was the social nucleus from which molecular biology sprang. Watson’s contribution to the volume, “Growing up in the phage group” cemented that narrative and located Cold Spring Harbor as the crucible from which molecular biology sprang. Historians have also noted that Watson’s 1965 Molecular Biology of the Gene, the first textbook of molecular biology, was seminal in bounding, setting the parameters of, and establishing a language for the new science. Receiving at most a footnote in most accounts is that, also in 1968, Watson became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory—in fact within weeks of the release of The Double Helix. Further, in Watson’s famous contribution to PATOOMB, “Growing up in the phage group,” he refers obliquely to The Double Helix. The archives reveal that, in fact, these events dovetailed, interlaced, co-constructed one another. Moreover, Watson’s appointment as director of CSHL was the culmination of at least six years of intensive involvement with Lab politics, in which he brought Cairns to CSHL as director, advised him regularly during his short tenure, and, when things fell apart, worked to find Cairns a graceful and remunerative exit. In short, all of these events—writing the textbook, the memoir, the creation of “the phage group” as the origin and Cold Spring Harbor the crucible of the new biology, and Watson’s patient process of becoming director—were components of
Date: 07/11/2021
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Conference Name: International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology Biennial Meeting