Sixty years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick published a short article in Nature entitled Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. The paper was an overnight sensation. With it, our perception of the world was forever changed. The double helix was born.
The discovery of the structure of DNA is arguably the most significant scientific advance of the 20th century. The aforementioned paper is still perhaps the most famous academic article in history. It secured Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins, the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. Even today, they are household names.
Rosalind Franklin would have been 93 years old today. Most of you have never heard this name, and those that have, likely associate it with a woman vaguely connected to Watson and Crick. Quite simply, Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant scientist who deserves just as much, if not more, credit for the discovery of the double helix. However, despite her tremendous contributions to the fledgling field of molecular biology, Franklin died in obscurity in 1958 at the age of 37.
So why isn’t Rosalind Franklin a co-author on that iconic Nature article? Why isn’t her name forever memorialized in the Nobel archives?
Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920 to a wealthy and prominent Jewish family. From a very young age she excelled academically and displayed an exceptional aptitude for science. Disregarding her family’s objections concerning women pursuing higher education, Franklin enrolled at Newham College in Cambridge in 1938 to study chemistry. In 1941 she was awarded Second Class Honors on her finals, the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree for women at the time. Franklin continued her research at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she earned her Ph.D. in 1945 based on her work with the physical chemistry of solid organic colloids. She subsequently relocated to Paris in order to work at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. Is was during her tenure here that Franklin was introduced to X-ray diffraction by the crystallographer Jacques Mering.
In 1951, Franklin returned to London as a research associate for King’s College, where she used her expertise with X-ray diffraction to undertake the study of DNA. At this point, it was known that DNA is the molecule of heredity (confirmed by the Hershey-Chase experiment in 1952), despite the fact that its shape continued to elude researchers. While at King’s College, Franklin and her Ph.D. student, Raymond Gosling, discovered that DNA exists in two forms, a wet form (“B”) and a dry form (“A”). She was also the first to realize that the phosphate units of the DNA molecule are located on the outside rather than the inside of the structure. In addition, Franklin had calculated the exact amount of water found in the B form of DNA. She presented these findings at a seminar in 1951 at which James Watson was present. In addition, further details regarding these data were later unethically shared with Crick in the form of a private internal departmental report.
Then there was Photo 51.
Franklin’s appointment at King’s College caused considerable friction between herself and Maurice Wilkins, the previous head of the DNA project. Though she was hired as an independent researcher, Wilkins believed Franklin to be subordinate. Her confidence and somewhat abrasive nature further denigrated her in Wilkins’ eyes. As a result, in what many interpret as an act at least partially motivated by spite, Wilkins disclosed the unpublished Photo 51 to Watson without Franklin’s permission or even knowledge. To a trained eye, the diffraction pattern clearly illustrates a helical molecule with antiparallel strands and the dimensions of the image allow for specific calculations regarding size and structure.
The crux of the “controversy” is simple: Franklin’s research built the model thats exists today.
We will never know for certain if Franklin would have uncovered the double helix on her own. For my part, I believe that she was on the threshold of a breakthrough when circumstances beyond her control sabotaged her rightful place in history. In any case, she deserves far more than a pitiful footnote in the famous 1953 paper, falsely claiming that its authors were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s work. We now know that Watson and Crick were stimulated by very specific knowledge of Franklin’s work acquired through a series of underhanded old boys’ club transactions.
Rather than dwell on past injustices, Franklin continued to produce quality science beyond her work with DNA. In 1953, she relocated to Birkbeck College where she spent her remaining years studying the tobacco mosaic virus and the structure of RNA. She published 17 papers and worked right up until her death from cancer in 1958.
I’m convinced that Dr. Franklin would be remembered differently had her first name not been Rosalind. It was the 1950s and, unsurprisingly, her peers didn’t see her as equal. After all, she had the gall to be a intelligent and professional woman in a man’s world. Indeed, years later Crick would admit that, “we always used to adopt – let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.” Watson, who continues to be bigoted and offensive to this day, had this to say about the scientist whose work he pirated:
“I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.”
Still, Franklin managed to maintain every bit of her integrity, which is more than can be said of the others involved in the DNA race. Despite her comparative anonymity, Franklin was the truest scientist of the bunch. That, in my opinion, is something to celebrate, more so than the fame and recognition. While everyone else played politics, Franklin unyieldingly, single-mindedly, and methodically sought the truth.
The least we can do is remember her birthday.