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.

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    A Google Doodle on Thursday celebrates Rosalind Franklin, who captured one of the first images of DNA.

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Had James Watson not been quite so chauvinistic, Rosalind Franklin might today be remembered mainly as a scientist, and not as a victim.

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."

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.

Franklin had labelled one particularly beautiful X-ray photograph as "Photograph 51." To the layperson, it looked just like a cross made of hatched line, but to those trying to discern the structure of a molecule essential to all known forms of life, it was a crucial clue: two phosphate backbones on the outside, the codes for inheritance – nucleobases – on the inside.

But Franklin, ever the cautious scientist, didn't draw any conclusions based on this one photograph. In any case, resigned to the fact that Wilkins wasn't going to leave, she was busy transitioning to another job, studying viruses under Dr. Bernal, at the University of London's Birkbeck College.   

Instead, the connection was made by Watson and Crick, after Wilkins showed Photograph 51 to Watson, without Franklin's knowledge, while Watson was visiting King's in January 1953. The following month, a colleague at Cambridge shared Wilkins's and Franklin's unpublished progress reports, giving the Cambridge duo more data about the molecule's structure. Within a few months, the two had constructed a model of the double helix, and a hypothesis about how it made copies of itself: It unwinds into single strands, and then each nucleobase attracts a complementary nucleobase, creating two double helices.

Franklin did not appear to be bitter about the discovery. She went on to a happy career at Birkbeck, where she made major advances in virology and the study of hydrocarbons. She became good friends with Crick and his wife, and was on friendly terms with Watson. Franklin died in 1958, at the age of 37, following a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. 

In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." The missing base pair, Franklin, was never in the running: According to Nobel rules, people cannot be nominated posthumously, and in any case the award can be granted to no more than three people.

And that would have been that, except that Watson decided to write a memoir.

Watson's patronizing attitude toward Franklin may not have raised any eyebrows in 1953. But "The Double Helix" came out in 1968, when the women's liberation movement was just getting into full swing: Betty Friedan's "Feminist Mystique" had been published five years earlier. By 1967, feminists were staging demonstrations against the Miss America pageant. Men could no longer expect to get away with referring to female intellectuals as "bluestockings."

The publication of "The Double Helix" also happened to coincide with a triennial meeting of the world's crystallographers, in Long Island. Needless to say, they were not pleased with the way Watson portrayed their late colleague. Anne Sayre, the wife of one of the meeting's hosts and a well-regarded fiction writer, was persuaded to take up Franklin's cause. Ms. Sayre's 1975 book, "Rosalind Franklin and DNA," fixed her in the popular consciousness as a victim of sexism in science. Franklin, asserts Sayre, was just weeks away from discovering the double helix before Wilkins purloined her research and gave it to Watson and Crick.

But Franklin was of course more than just a martyr. As another Franklin biographer, Brenda Maddox, noted in a 2003 essay in Nature, the crystallographer "died proud of her world reputation in the research of coals, carbons and viruses. Given her determination to avoid fanciful speculation, she would never have imagined that she would be remembered as the unsung heroine of DNA." 

As for Watson, his epilogue to "The Double Helix" sought to redeem Franklin, and perhaps, himself. He wrote:  

"Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements ... By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking."


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