Rosalind Franklin and the Search for DNA

In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was a awarded jointly to Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Many are aware of Watson and Crick's work in "discovering" DNA in 1953. But the world had known about DNA since 1944, when Oswald Avery declared it to be the molecule that carried genetic information. For years, scientists had raced to learn more about DNA. Watson and Crick worked on DNA in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Physicist Maurice Wilkins was one of several scientists working on DNA at Kings College in London. And so was Rosalind Franklin

1962 Nobel laureates Maurice Wilkins, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, John Steinbeck, James Watson, and John C Kendrew. Photo from Keystone/Getty Images.

Sir John Randall assembled a team of scientists to work on the problem of DNA at his Kings College laboratory that included both Wilkins, who had just left work on the Manhattan Project, and Franklin, who had become renowned for her work in x-ray crystallography in Paris. Wilkins had been working on x-ray diffraction, but when his work lagged, Randall assigned Rosalind Franklin and graduate student Raymond Gosling to study the structure of DNA by X-ray diffraction. Franklin was delayed in getting to Kings College in 1950 due to her work in France. When she arrived in 1951, Maurice Wilkins missed the meeting in which she was introduced as a colleague. That led to an important misunderstanding.

Franklin was under the impression that the x-ray diffraction was her project. Wilkins assumed, depending on the source, that either Franklin was working as his partner or as his assistant. Because of this difference of views, the two did not get along well. Franklin had long been patronized for being a woman scientist, and she preferred to work alone or with her assistant Gosling.

Watson and Crick began to suspect that DNA took a helical pattern, but were looking into the possibility of a triple-twist helix. Franklin had her doubts about a helix pattern at all, because her mathematical models did not support the theory, but she did not dismiss the possibility.

Photograph from the Oregon State University Library.

In May of 1952, Franklin and Gosling took a x-ray diffraction image that became known as "photo 51." Gosling presented the photo to Wilkins as part of his graduate work. In January of 1953, Wilkins shared the picture, and some of Franklin's unpublished notes, with Watson and Crick, without Franklin's knowledge. Watson and Crick saw that photo 51 held the secret that confirmed the double-helix model, and ran with it.

Franklin studied photo 51 and independently saw the double-helix model in February of 1953. She and Gosling prepared a paper in March, and it appeared in the journal Nature along with Watson and Crick's announcement of the double-helix discovery in April of 1953. Wilkins also had an article on DNA structure in the same issue. Franklin was unaware of Watson and Crick's breakthrough before publication, but she accepted it, not knowing how her work contibuted to it. She went on to Birkbeck College to work on viruses. While Franklin poured herself into new research, Watson and Crick were celebrated for the discovery of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin, born in 1920, received her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Cambridge University in 1941 and her PhD in 1945. She worked constantly in the laboratory until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956. Franklin died in 1958 at age 37. There is speculation that her years of work with x-rays, during which she took little if any precaution against radiation, contributed to her death.


Comic by Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant.

Franklin was not eligible for a Nobel in 1962 because they are never awarded posthumously. But when Crick, Watson, and Wilkins won the Nobel, none of them gave Franklin any credit for her contribution to the research. Interest in her work was ignited when James Watson published a memoir in 1968 called The Double Helix, in which he criticized Franklin's appearance and minimized her role in DNA research. During her life, Franklin had been a world-renowned chemist, virologist, and expert in crystallography within the scientific community. Then the backlash generated by Watson's book made Franklin a symbol of sexism in science, as the unsung hero of DNA research. Dr. Franklin would probably find that strange, but might possibly find it satisfying.

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