Double Helix Discovery’s Forgotten Hero: Rosalind Franklin

Sixty years ago Thursday, Feb. 28, Francis Crick and James Watson found a twisted pair of deoxyribonucleic acid strands inside a living cell, strands which we eventually learned could pull apart, replicate and pass on their material. They postulated that the most basic shape of DNA was a helix, and in April published their findings in Nature magazine. Their conclusions, which Crick explicitly said were based mostly on Rosalind Franklin’s data, became an instrumental discovery in the science of molecular research.

In 1951, Franklin gave a lecture, which Watson attended, where she stated that DNA can exist in two forms depending on humidity. This would indicate that the backbone of DNA, its phosphate particles, had to be on the outside. Watson and Crick formed a failed model based on these findings, and were eventually told to move on with their own research.

The story goes that Franklin used X-ray diffraction to deduce that DNA had a helical structure, and captured evidence of it in a photo, but because of her cautious approach to science, she was hesitant to publish her findings immediately. Her student, Raymond Gosling, allegedly passed the photo on to Maurice Wilkins, in whose lab Franklin was working. When he ran into Watson in January 1953, Wilkins showed him the photo without Franklin’s knowledge, at which point Watson said that his “jaw fell open and [his] pulse began to race.”

Watson and Crick continued this line of investigation and published their paper on April 25, 1953. In Watson’s book, “The Double Helix,” which he published in 1968, he made denigrating remarks about Franklin, and called her “Rosy” although she never went by that name. Decades later, at Cambridge University, Francis Crick admitted, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

Several books have been written about Franklin’s contribution, including Brenda Maddox’s “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” which says that while Watson and Crick used her research without her consent and cribbed the research, Franklin did not complain (possibly because of her upbringing). She simply asked to see their paper, saying it was “pretty good.” She also asked how they intended to prove their hypothesis.

Crick, Watson and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their contributions in the science of nucleic acids, and because the prize is not awarded posthumously, Franklin did not. She died at the age of 37 in 1958 due to ovarian cancer.

Encouragingly, on the Internet, whenever Franklin is ignored in discussions about the discovery of the double helix, angry commenters will invariably slam anyone who fails to also give credit where it’s due.

Happy 60th anniversary, double helix.

(Published Feb. 28, 2013 on iTechPost.)