Rosalind Franklin: Was she robbed of the credit for discovering the double helix?
Rosalind Franklin, celebrated Thursday with a double-helical doodle on Google's home page, is mostly remembered as the person who had her data swiped by Watson and Crick. But the picture is more nuanced than that.
In Pictures Google Doodles you'll never see
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But that wasn't to be. In Dr. Watson's memoir, "The Double Helix," which recounts the two years the molecular biologist spent at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory attempting, with his colleague Francis Crick, to discover the structure of DNA, here is how he described Dr. Franklin, whom he called "Rosy":
"By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men."
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When Watson first cast his judgement on her appearance, Franklin – who didn't actually go by "Rosy" – was working at the Biophysics Research Unit in King's College, London, and she wasn't happy. When she arrived there in 1951, she had been told by the lab's director, the physicist John T. Randall, that she was to lead the lab's DNA project. But this wasn't made clear to the unit's assistant director Maurice Wilkins, who thought that Franklin was to be his assistant in his investigations into the enigmatic molecule. With each viewing the other as a usurper, the two scientists got along like nucleobases and water.
At Cambridge, Watson had joined with Francis Crick, and the pair were busy gathering all the publicly available data they could about DNA, in an attempt to construct a model. Their first attempt, an inside-out triple helix, was wrong. The negative electrical charge of the three sugar-and-phosphate "backbones" at the core would have blown the molecule apart. That's what Franklin told Crick and Watson – rather bluntly, it seems – after the pair had invited her and Dr. Wilkins to look at their model.
Watson and Crick attempted to persuade Wilkins and Franklin to collaborate, but they declined. Returning to King's some 50 miles away, the two continued their work trying to photograph DNA using a method at which Franklin excelled: X-ray crystallography.
Here's how the science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker memorably describes how X-ray crystallography works:
"Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman's invisible airplane. You can't see it. But you know it's there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane."
Instead of rubber balls, Franklin and Wilkins used X-rays, which diffract off the atoms in the molecule, creating patterns on photographic plates that can be used to discern the molecule's shape.
According to the Irish scientist John Desmond Bernal, who pioneered this method, Franklin's images were "among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance [ever] taken." Like many of her colleagues, however, she took few precautions to protect herself from the ionizing radiation emanating from her X-ray camera.