Rosalind Franklin and DNA

Rosalind Franklin came from an accomplished family and decided as a young girl to become a scientist. Throughout her life, either as a student or as an accomplished and talented scientist, she adhered to a strong sense of personal morals and those traits that exemplified the finest  example of what a scientist can be. Science was for Rosalind, an endeavor towards the truth and a researcher’s efforts must be nothing short of a sound and rigorous application of the scientific method. Yet despite her dedication, she was the most interesting, generous and delightful of persons as her friends and colleagues have reported. She loved people, especially children, was an avid hiker in the mountains of Norway and in Israel on her own. Rosalind had a need to experience life to it’s fullest and had the necessary intelligence and confidence for doing so.
Rest Stop after hiking with friends in Norway.1940’s
Courtesy Jennifer Glyn,
She obtained her PhD from Cambridge University at the age of 26, just as the second world war was ending. Her initial employment experience in x-ray diffraction of crystallized solids led her to become an excellent practitioner in x-ray crystallography, pioneering and extending the use of this method to analyzing more complex matter such as large biological molecules. 
In 1950, King’s College invited her to join a team of scientists studying living cells. Now here is where things became muddled as Wilkins who was on vacation at the time, returned assuming she was his assistant. She had been in fact, brought into the organization to organize, supervise and carry out the x-ray diffraction of DNA. She was assigned a lab assistant as well (1). Maurice Wilkins was  appointed to perform the bio-chemical studies . Their powerful personality differences often had them at odds with each other. Franklin’s direct and decisive attitude often scorched the shy and passive Wilkins.
These forces of personality, the bias against women scientists, and Watson, Crick and Wilkins’ use of her data without her knowledge played important roles in the race to find the structure of DNA.
Franklin had developed superior x-ray diffraction techniques with DNA. Her ability to fine adjust and study DNA fibers under different environmental conditions, allowed her to discover crucial aspects of the B form of DNA’s structure(2);  namely that is was a double helix structure with  substructures such as phosphate groups and a countable number of nucleotides per helical turn. Dimensional measurements were presented as well. Her results contradicted the view held at that time by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and others that DNA contained three chains. In going through her data without her knowledge,  Watson and Crick were finally able to abandon  their initial assumptions and publish their proposal of DNA’s  double helix structure in April, 1953. Their paper; ‘A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic acid’, is a curious one in that they propose the correct model based on journal references to previous investigations, e.g.; the ratios of Adenine to Thymine and Guanine to Cytosine and to x-ray photographs (one of these by Wilkins and Randall).  It is almost speculative in nature and not in any way a rigorous proof of their hypothesis.Randall it may be noted, had presented (unknown to Rosalyn) her unpublished data at a seminar attended by Wilkins who subsequently relayed the results to Watson and Crick. When Watson first saw the famous ‘photograph 51‘ produced by Rosalyn, he finally was able to make the correct conclusion about DNA structure. It’s not clear how much Rosalyn knew of her colleagues’ activities before she published her paper  ‘Evidence for 2-chain Helix in Crystalline Structure of Sodium Deoxyribonucleate’ with Gosling in July 1953. The paper is a detailed description of their experimental findings, a paper worthy of crediting it’s authors for their hard and well verified work. Certainly she credits and references Watson and Crick in the paper. However, the paper itself appears to credit the earlier hypothetical but famous Watson and Crick paper of April 1953.

Watson, who maligns Rosalyn Franklin in his book, ‘The Double Helix‘ for a number of personally perceived slights, admits that no one, including Roslyn, knew at the time they had her data in hand.(3) In a December 1961 correspondence to Jacques Monod, Francis Crick admitted that Rosalyn’s data had been “the data we actually used.” However, upon acceptance of their Nobel Prize in 1962, the three scientists made no mention of Franklin’s contribution.

Strained relationships with Wilkins and his team, along with other considerations, one being  that women scientists were not allowed to eat lunch in the common room where the men did, ultimately drove Franklin to seek another position. Though she left to head her own research group at Birkbeck College in London, the head of King’s College only let her go on the condition she would not work on DNA. Franklin wrapped up her DNA work and turned her attention to viruses. Her group was highly productive; their findings eventually setting the foundation for the study of structural virology. She managed to publish seventeen papers within a five year span before her death from ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in London. The last two years of her life she managed to work through episodes of pain, three operations and experimental chemotherapy.
It is sad and truly ironic that the very woman who as a major player, set the stage for the study of DNA and who provided experimental proof of its structure, did not have access to the modern tests and therapies that could have saved her life. Her story also depicts the often shameful plagiarism, sexual bias and bullying (3) that goes on even today in science corridors and not just with respect to women but in many cases with junior researchers. History has a way of uncovering the truth and this has certainly been the case with  Rosalyn Franklin. Investigative books, one by her close friend and journalist, Anne Sayre, ‘Rosalyn Franklin and DNA’ and the more recent Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA’ by Brenda Maddox, along with examination of the Crick papers, are just a few examples of incidences uncovering the numerous contributions she made in her short but brilliant life.
(1) Brenda Maddox. Nature 421, 407-408(23 January 2003).
(2) Nature, Vol. 172, ‘Evidence for 2-chain Helix in Crystalline Structure of Sodium Deoxyribonucleate; page 156, July 25, 1953, Rosalyn E. Franklin and R.G. Gosling.

About Deborah Leddon

Vegetarian Mother and Wife, Scientist at UTD CSS, passionate about my family, animal rights, the outdoors and my violin.
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