The Sad Story of Rosalind Franklin

Double helix of DNA

Ask someone on the street to name some scientists, and the list will almost certainly include Einstein, Newton, Hawking and Darwin. But who else is there? The distribution of fame is among scientists, past and present is pretty damn uneven.

Given how scientific progress requires huge amounts of collaboration and using the knowledge of those who came before, it’s not surprising that individuals go unremembered. There have been many individuals who had great insight and perseverance to make the world a better, more fathomable place who have not entered the public consciousness. Becky wrote a little while ago about her top three influential female scientists, and today I’m going to tell the story of one more.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

The twisting ladder shape of DNA is pretty iconic these days, but pre-1953 this famous structure was only speculated at. The names of Drs Watson and Crick have been made pretty legendary within the natural sciences as the men who finally found the answer. Their fame may not be misplaced, but it does leave out a key woman who until recently has been overlooked and forgotten. Her name was Rosalind Franklin, and her story is fraught with prejudice, deception and disease.

She knew she wanted to be a scientist from the age of 15 and, despite her father’s wishes, pursued that dream to Cambridge University where she received her PhD. After three years in Paris, Franklin moved to a lab in Kings College London where she excelled at her field. Her main area of research was using X-rays to visualise and study the properties of DNA, with an eventual aim to discovering what the fundamental molecule of life actually looked like.

There was strong competition with other labs to be the first to find and publish the final result. There was a huge amount of scientific credit and fame at stake, with the winning group almost guaranteed a Nobel Prize. The race for the truth was on. Not only were the aforementioned Watson and Crick were working for a similar goal from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, but they were also trying to pip American rival Linus Pauling to the post.

This is Franklin's

This is Franklin’s “Photo 51”, which was crucial in figuring out what DNA actually looks like

In January 1953, Watson decided to visit London in order to offer a collaboration with Franklin’s lab, working together to beat Pauling and solve this fundamental structure. However, this was not to be. Watson and Franklin fell out almost immediately when he vainly accused her of not being able to understand the work she’d produced. Franklin, a quietly proud woman, would not stand for that. They worked independently from thereon.

Unfortunately for Franklin, one of her colleagues decided to show Watson some of Franklin’s data against her wishes and behind her back. When looking at one particular image, termed “Photo 51”, the truth snapped into place for Watson – the double helix was the answer. With this in mind, he rushed to publish in the highly respected journal, Nature.

Franklin was waiting for more evidence to come in before thinking about the final answer, and this may have cost her much of the credit she deserved for her hard work and perseverance in the face of huge social pressures. Her paper (including the image which changed everything) was also published, but presented in a way which made it look like a minor support rather than the game-changer it was.

Hark! A vagrant's comic on Rosalind Franklin and, presumably, Watson & Crick

Hark! A vagrant’s comic on Rosalind Franklin and, presumably, Watson & Crick. Click image for source.

She might have been eligible for the Nobel Prize alongside Watson, Crick and Wilkins, but she succumbed to ovarian cancer before the chance was there. She therefore died unrecognised and barely thanked or rewarded for her accomplishments. Thankfully, with the increased recognition of women in science past and present, and media like this play about her story, the name of Rosalind Franklin is more and more appreciated now.

Sources: here and hereThis post is adapted from one I wrote last year for Bristol24-7 – click here to see the original.

Em x

1 Comment

  1. Mark Szczelkun (Post author)

    Hi Emily,
    Interesting post, but you should also read Maurice Wilkins’ autobiography, “The Third Man of the Double Helix”. In that he states that Gosling, out of the blue, gave him a copy of photo 51 with his (and Franklin’s) blessing to do with what he liked. Thereafter he showed it to Watson (who had anyway already seen a similar image at a talk given by Franklin but had not understood its significance at the time nor communicated it to Crick clearly enough). There was certainly a clash of personalities between Wilkins and Franklin, possibly seeded by mismanagement by Randall that led to confusion about ownership of the DNA project. Wilkins was clearly upset by what he saw as unfair representation of how he acted towards Franklin. Neither he nor Crick were pleased by Watson’s book and its characterisations.

    BTW A good source of biographical information about Franklin is Brenda Maddox’s rather excellent biography, which is more balanced than some earlier works.


    Mark Szczelkun


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