ROSALIND FRANKLIN AND THE DNA DOUBLE HELIX
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.