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The discovery of the structure of DNA, on which much of modern biology is based, was a story about both brilliant insight, abject failure, and "court" intrigue that reads like a novel. I can hardly do justice to it in such a short diary. One of the greatest of modern chemists, Linus Pauling (at Caltech), failed spectacularly and a team of one British scientist and a brash young American, plus a New Zealander (by birth) shared the glory, while (at least partly because of her untimely death) the one woman involved was denied.  Since it was Rosalind Franklin's x-ray crystallography that provided the evidence that led to the final breakthrough, it seemed to many people to be unfair. It may also have been a bit unfair to another Englishman, Dr A. R. Stokes, who worked with Maurice Wilkins at King's College, London, and actually got along quite nicely with Franklin.  He saw the implication of the work quite early (1950), based on Wilkins' and Raymond Gosling's X-rays, but deferred to Wilkins and the rest.

Franklin was described as standoffish and hardly inclined to defer to Maurice Wilkins, who seems to have thought that he was in charge of her work. In fact they were both equals according to their director (who apparently failed to make that fact clear to Wilkins.)  Although (and perhaps because of) the unauthorized sharing of Franklin's x-ray crystallography with James Watson (the American) and his associate Francis Crick (the Englishman) was crucial, Wilkins was himself somewhat shunted to the side by Watson and Crick, who gained the lion's share of the credit, even though Wilkins shared in the Nobel Prize for the discovery.

Rosalind Franklin was born in London to a well-off and well connected Jewish family. Her father was a merchant banker and her father's uncle had been the first Jewish member of the British Cabinet. Among other activities, the Franklin family helped Jews who immigrated from Europe during the Nazi era.  

Franklin was unusually bright and excelled as a student. She attended Newham College in Cambridge, and for her work on the chemistry of coal during World War II, she was eventually awarded a Ph.D.

She became involved in X-ray crystallography while working at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris under the direction of Jacques Mering. In 1951 she moved to Kings College, London, in the Medical Research Council's Biophysics Unit under the direction of John Randall. He assigned Franklin to the X-ray study of DNA, but apparently left Maurice Wilkins, who was working on the problem with a graduate student, Raymond Gosling, in the dark as to the real situation. This appears to be true even though Gosling was transfered by Randall to Franklin! To be completely fair Wilkins was not present when Franklin arrived at King's College and clarification of the situation may just have slipped Randall's mind. Wilkins was bewildered by the whole thing and since had became friends with the team then modeling the DNA structure at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, Watson and Crick, he shared his bewilderment with them. He eventually let them see one of the X-rays that Franklin had taken, and after seeing that the structure published by Pauling was wrong (the great chemist had made a mistake that many chemistry students would not have), they pieced the correct structure together and published the famous one-page paper in the journal Nature in 1953.  

The fact that Franklin was also close to the structure, based on the X-ray that had been passed to Watson and Crick without her consent (the infamous photo 51) did not seem to matter. Franklin left King's College for Birkbeck College (a move that she had contemplated for some time and where she started work on the polio virus) just before the publication. Her treatment led eventually to a lot of questions surrounding the account of the discovery in Watson's book "The Double Helix" and his seeming lack of proper credit for her help in the interpretation of the structure (Franklin's friend Anne Sayre presented a quite different picture in her later book "Rosalind Franklin and DNA.") Once the model had been constructed an agreement was struck by the laboratory that Watson and Crick would write the lead article and that the rest would follow in two further papers, seemingly in support of Watson and Crick (although Franklin had a paper in process before she was aware of the model breakthrough.)  Oddly, Franklin was critical of Watson's and Crick's model and would have preferred more empirical evidence.

Franklin unfortunately died of ovarian cancer before the Nobel Prize was awarded, apparently because she was too cavalier about not using a leaded apron while doing X-ray crystallography. However her family's genetic background may have also contributed.  She was thus not eligible to be awarded the prize and it went to Watson, Crick and Wilkins.  The main problems were Watson's suspect account of the discovery and the obvious fact that Wilkins showed the X-ray to Watson and Crick without Franklin's permission. It led to a probably accurate impression that Watson and Crick had tried to minimize her contribution and their later apparent sidelining of Wilkins added to the impression. Ironically she spent some time during one of her recuperations from her final illness living with Crick and his wife. Obviously the relationships were quite complex, as were the people involved.

As I noted earlier, this diary is quite short, compared with the complexity of the story (several books have been written about it) and if I made too many short cuts in it, I apologize. I would appreciate any errors of fact being brought to my attention. I recommend that anyone interested read both Watson's and Sayre's books listed below. As for myself I have had only a peripheral association with the people involved, having read "The Double Helix" when it first came out and having heard Francis Crick give a seminar at a university. My first impressions of Watson and Crick were generally favorable, but then I read further and decided that although brilliant they had some ethical issues. While the subject is still highly controversial, Rosalind Franklin probably deserved better than she got in the end.

Literature References:

Sayre, Anne. 2000. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. W. W. Norton and Company.

Watson, James. !968.  The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York, Atheneum.

Internet References:

Modest, neglected DNA pioneer dies http://www.the-scientist.com/...

Rosalind Elsie Franklin http://www.sdsc.edu/...

Rosalind Franklin http://en.wikipedia.org/...    

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 05:28 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, J Town, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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