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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.

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 contributed 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 Ph.D. 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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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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