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Updated on March 7, 2012

The Shape of DNA

April 25th, 2012 will mark yet another anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick’s article in Nature magazine that revealed the double helix shape of DNA, resulting in Crick’s famous statement that they had “found the secret of life.” A funny thing happened on the way to this discovery, however, and history tells a different story about which scientist should actually get the most credit.

Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25, 1920 in London, into a wealthy, prominent family. She excelled in her studies and in sports, and eventually received the award of Second Honors in 1941 which was the equivalent of a degree in chemistry. Women in her college were not awarded Bachelor’s degrees until 1947, so Rosalind received hers retroactively. She began her career learning x-ray diffraction and crystallography, specifically looking at the porosity of coal, or, as she put it, the “holes in coal”. She then became a research assistant at King’s College in London and was assigned to work on the x-ray diffraction of DNA fibers. Unfortunately, the director, John Randall, failed to inform two other researchers who had been working on DNA that Franklin was to take over the diffraction studies. These two men, Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling, were unhappy about this, causing a lot of friction in the laboratory

Eventually, Franklin and Gosling worked together on the “A, or dry form of DNA, while Wilkins studied the hydrated, or “B” form. In the course of their studies, Rosalind Franklin utilized her x-ray diffraction skills and manipulations to produce some of the most precise diffractions to date, leading to the theory of a double helix. Linus Pauling was also researching DNA structure at this time, but he misinterpreted his data. James Watson, who was working with Francis Crick at Cambridge University, came to King’s College asking for them all to collaborate and publish the double helix theory before Linus Pauling realized his error and beat them to it. Maurice Wilkins then took him aside and showed Watson, without Franklin’s permission, her famous “photograph 51”, which revealed the double helix structure. This was the information Watson and Crick needed to build their structure. They were also given many of Franklin’s crystallographic calculations.

On April 25, 1953, Watson and Crick published their article revealing the double helical structure of DNA in Nature,with just a footnote acknowledging their model as "having been stimulated by a general knowledge of" Franklin and Wilkin's 'unpublished' contribution. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology. Franklin had passed away in 1958 after a courageous battle with uterine cancer, and was therefore not nominated. In his book “The Double Helix”, James Watson very poorly presented Franklin and her work, although he retracted much of it in the preface of a later edition of the same book.

In order to build their molecular model of DNA, with its phosphate backbone and double helix structure, Franklin’s pictures and calculations were critical, and obtained mostly without her permission. It will never be known if she would have built the same model and published before them had they not had access to her work. At the very least, her name should be included in the title, hence the “Watson, Crick and Franklin” model of DNA.


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    • Zoraya Nash profile image

      Zoryana 3 years ago from Ukraine

      We must give her credits, for her impacht was enormous. Unfortunately she died very quickly and couldn't defend herself.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 4 years ago from Reno NV

      Rosalind Franklin to me is the one who found DNA not Watson and Crick and I can only hope that the history books tell the true story. Jamie

    • profile image

      Allen Esterson 5 years ago

      "It will never be known if she would have built the same model and published before them had they not had access to her work."

      The crucial X ray photograph was taken a year earlier, and Franklin was working in a different direction. That takes nothing away from Franklin's superb X-ray photography, but she was averse to what she regarded as speculative theorising beyond the immediate photographic evidence. At the time that Crick and Watson came up with the double helix model she was already preparing to transfer to Birkbeck College London to work on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus in the department led by J. D. Bernal.

    • ahmed.b profile image

      ahmed.b 5 years ago from Sweden

      Informative and yet truth revealing hub. Feeling sad about Rosalind Franklin. I have nothing much to say as there are many known (and I believe there would be even more unknown) cases when the person who actually worked or reserced was not being acknowledged and the cheaters take all the credit of that discovery or inventions.