“Sydney Brenner does indeed pepper his conversation with “OK?”, like a teacher anxious that his students should have understood.  Francis Crick does indeed have a knack of describing his reactions to past events as if they had been spoken aloud, as in “At the time, we said, ‘Isn’t that funny, they seem to be arranged on strings’…” about the arrangement of ribosomes in the cell.”

The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in BiologyReaders can now gain their own impressions of these titans from the recent biographies of Crick and Brenner. But when those words were written, 15 years ago, by the distinguished former editor of Nature, John Maddox, he was acknowledging as “uncannily accurate” the voices of the principal actors to be heard in The Eighth Day of Creation, a history of the birth of molecular biology written by Horace Freeland Judson, who died last month at the age of 80.

Originally published in 1978, the book was reissued in expanded form by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in 1996. The additional text included new information about the relationship between Jacob and Monod (explored at an Institut Pasteur symposium in May) and an essay arguing, in Judson’s words, that Rosalind Franklin “did not have a bad career in science because she was a woman” (the theme of the play Photograph 51, staged and discussed at this month’s Science Festival in New York).

These two recent events show that the story Judson told remains as absorbing today as ever.  In an Afterword to the most recent edition of the book, the 25th Anniversary Edition, Judson gives his own account of how he pulled it off.  Reliant on in-depth, often multiple interviews with the principal players, his approach was intense and exhausting.  His newspaper obituaries, for example The Guardian’s, were respectful and admiring but to get a proper flavor of the man, read the excellent blog postings by two younger men who worked with him (here and here).  The vanity and self-regard they point to are on full display in the Afterword but so too is the elegance of the prose, the sharp intelligence, and the sheer sense of pleasure in the people and events involved.  Judson’s subsequent books lacked this verve.  Perhaps academic ambition undermined his journalistic energy.  But as Maddox remarks, the structure of DNA and all that has flowed from it is the most penetrating of all insights into the natural world.  No-one has chronicled it as well and clearly as Judson did.