The first page of Howard Markel’s comprehensive history The Secret of Life reads like the opening scene of a movie. “On February 28, 1953, shortly after the chapel bells struck noon, two men hurtled down a stairwell of Cambridge University’s Cavendish Physics Laboratory. Bursting with exhilaration, they had just made the scientific discovery of a lifetime … ” Delving into the human lives and relationships behind “the race to unravel DNA’s structure”, the book frequently zooms in on such visual details, from the “crusty yellow remains” of fried egg at Francis Crick’s breakfast table to the “clickety clack” of Rosalind Franklin’s heels echoing “on the slick, wet marble floor” of King’s College London.

A movie needs a hero and a villain, and in this story they are Franklin – brilliant, female, Jewish, misunderstood – and James Watson, whose “mean-spirited” 1968 memoir “commandeered the historical record with boundless guile and cunning”. This is the story of how Watson and Crick were memorialised for their work and Franklin’s contribution was minimised, complete with accounts of the academic politics, really quite personal character sketches (“Watson was a razor-thin, shy, odd-looking, and unathletic boy with bulging eyes and peculiar facial mannerisms”) and admirably clear explanations of the science: X-ray crystallography, molecular biology, mathematics and more.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their model of part of a DNA molecule, 1953. Photograph: A Barrington Brown, © Gonville & Caius College/Coloured By Science Photo Library

Markel has drawn on many sources in his attempt to set the record straight: memoirs and biographies of the main players; Franklin’s painstaking notebooks, as well as other papers from Cambridge and King’s; the closely guarded archives of the Nobel prize committees; and interviews with the original sources, or their survivors. Among the most fascinating of these is a series of conversations with the 90-year-old Watson, conducted in 2018. He “did not refrain from articulating his repugnant views on Africans, African Americans, Asians, and … Eastern European Jews”. He turned red with anger at the suggestion that Franklin might have shared the Nobel prize. And he conceded that, with regards to Franklin: “You wouldn’t say I was exactly honorable.”

After all these years, this admission is remarkable, but it refers to one specific incident only: the moment on 30 January 1953 when Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins handed Watson Franklin’s famous “Photograph 51” without her consent or knowledge. This was a eureka moment for Watson, one he later described in his memoir: “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.” The image revealed the double helix pattern in the B-form of DNA, sending Watson back to his 3D modelling with a new perspective.

A different penny dropped for Crick in mid-February 1953 when another piece of Franklin’s work came into his hands, again without her knowledge. “[We] needed a clue … ” he later wrote, “and the clue was Rosalind Franklin’s data.” Markel is clear in his condemnation of all the men involved, but especially Crick and Watson. Their “lack of a formal citation [in their historic paper for Nature] of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to their work is the most egregious example of their negligence,” he writes.

The story that leads to this point is a sad and frustrating one. Markel paints a picture of a culture of misogyny and egotism that punished Franklin for personality flaws her male colleagues were allowed. She was spiky and superior. Watson was arrogant. Crick’s conceit was “superhuman”. Wilkins’ toxic relationship with Franklin led to her being “frozen out” of King’s College completely. It’s also notable that this one huge discovery required many different scientific disciplines and distinct personality types: “one soberly conscientious, with an unbending professional attitude to her work; the other a bright spark with a devil-may-care attitude”. In this hare and tortoise race for the secret of life, the hares won. But how much sooner might the secret of DNA have been cracked if scientists opposing teams had only been able to collaborate? Indeed, what important discoveries might we still be waiting for today because of a publish-or-perish culture that rewards only the first?

Franklin seems to have harboured little bitterness about the accolades that never came her way. When she finally reviewed Crick and Watson’s model, she was pleased that it made sense of her research. “We all stand on each other’s shoulders,” she said. Watson called her “a loser”. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, aged 37, with her enormous contributions to science largely unacknowledged. 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.

The Secret of Life is published by Norton (£21.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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