Double Helix Double Cross

For a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, especially as American schools tried to close the perceived science and math gap after Sputnik was launched, a nearly constant refrain was the wonderful promise of DNA and the Watson-Crick double helix molecular structure. As it happens, there is a wee bit more to the story…

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins did share the 1962 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.” Conspicuously absent from any honors, or even a mention by any of these laureates during their remarks at the Nobel banquet, is the name of the scientist who actually made the discovery possible.

Indeed, six years later, when Watson’s book The Double Helix was about to be released, his original publisher, Harvard University Press, pulled the plug since he did not mention this other scientist. Watson was to add a section on this scientist, although it was deemed inaccurate by all who knew her, and did little to elucidate her contributions to the discovery.

The scientist in question is the late Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant researcher who had produced the beautiful x-ray diffraction photos that put Watson on the right track as to DNA’s structure. Before seeing these photos, especially the famous photograph number 51, he and Crick, utilizing Linus Pauling’s hypothesis, were headed to Nowheresville as to the molecular structure. That Franklin was unaware that her photos were shown to Watson surely adds to the controversy.

What makes it even worse is that Franklin was to die of ovarian cancer in 1958, at age 37, and was thus permanently knocked out of Nobel consideration. As you will see, this whole matter provides an interesting look at big-time science, and the small-time people involved.

It must be emphasized that Franklin would not want to be remembered as a victim. Far from it. She was already doing fine science before she moved from the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris, to King’s College in London where the DNA work was done. And, upon leaving King’s she continued on with well-respected work on RNA viruses.

If anything, Franklin was a feminist, although an unusual one, since most academic feminists are not scientists, and are usually not very bright, either. Moreover, her clashes with male staff members, as detailed by Watson may have had more to do with quaint British social customs, than her own personality deficiencies. First and foremost, a woman at that time and place would have been a second-class citizen.

Exacerbating the situation, Franklin spoke with an upper-crust accent, and many at King’s were not favorably disposed to this. Only the British could have different orders of snobbery within a given setting of snobbery, that would turn the usual order on its head.

Being a dedicated and hard worker, she also tended to avoid the morning coffee and afternoon tea rituals, that were de rigueur for all good English folks. Not helping things either was the little matter that John Randall, who brought both her and Wilkins into King’s Biophysics unit, essentially told both of them that they would be in charge of the DNA work.

Of the three Nobel laureates, Crick and Wilkins (now both deceased) did finally give some attribution to Franklin, but for many, this was too little too late. Some authors, such as Robert P. Crease of SUNY-Stony Brook, have now taken the strange tack that those who continue to protest against Franklin’s treatment are beating a dead horse, since she has received numerous posthumous honors. He seems not to realize that most of these are “inside baseball,” and for all eternity the actual winners of the Nobel prize will be remembered by most people.

As for Watson, he still arrogantly maintains that Franklin could take great pictures, but was not able to interpret her own data. For him to posit such a preposterous notion at this late date can only make me believe that he would have been lost without her pictures. Watson is protesting a bit too much.

As to DNA, more than 60 years after the double helix structure was discovered, the optimistic notions of the resulting medical marvels proffered in the early 1960s have not yet come true. True, certain diseases can be identified as genetic, and can even be mapped. But, the gene therapy to correct them is mostly science fiction at this point. Forensic use of DNA seems to be the biggest application at the moment, and Franklin might be happy knowing that justice is well served by her contributions.

Perhaps the saddest part of Franklin’s story is that she took one for the team. There is little doubt that her cancer was caused by overexposure to radiation during her career of x-ray crystallography. Like Marie Curie before her, radiation did her in. Of course, the only difference is that Curie received two Nobels (in 1903 and 1911) along with plenty of other honors, and lived to see her 66th birthday, while Rosalind Franklin died young and will forever be a footnote.

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16 responses to “Double Helix Double Cross

  1. Very interesting; thanks for educating me!

  2. “True, certain diseases can be identified as genetic”

    Alas, it has been perverted. Genetics is blamed for all sorts of human problems, from divorce to obesity.

  3. The attribution of her ovarian cancer to X-ray exposure is problematic, if not totally spurious. My own mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 39 in 1960, but was saved by a hysterectomy. She had no unusual exposure to any ionizing radiation.
    Although the single factor that all cancers have in common is DNA damage to living cells, that itself may be caused by any number of agencies, including some that are completely unavoidable: cosmic rays, chemicals, viruses, and even naturally occurring carbon-14.

  4. Paul Peterson


  5. Old news, but the more often repeated, the better.

    That said, I have recently met Jimbo Watson, and he did not seem to be the arrogant jerk he once was. He is now an interesting man, busy doing interesting science (mainly juggling the two cancers that are going to kill him soon, but interesting anyway). Humans need a lot of time to grow up. Many die first.

    • Happy to hear that Watson has finally become a human being. Was at a conference ages ago, and saw him holding court….

      • I’d even say, super-human. I am not sure I’d be having as much fun in a condition like his. Very few of us can understand our ailments enough to laugh at them and play with them like he does.

        Check him out if he happens to speak near you. I get the impression that he is on a permanent speaking tour. I saw him give variants of this talk twice at the same place in a little over a year:

  6. Westchester Bill

    I was dismayed by this super politically correct post. Ms. Franklin’s x-ray exposure wasn’t measured. How would it compare to a couple CT scans? My mother was clobbered by leukemia at age 32. She did not have excessive x-ray exposure; it just happened.

    And Dr. Watson was right. Ms Franklin’s picture was beautiful and provided a critical clue to his work. But the picture itself was not done as part of the work as I understand it. We credit Issac Newton for the theory of gravity, not the apple that fell to the ground.

    • Bill, he was right about some things and very wrong about others.

      It wasn’t anything like Newton’s apple. They didn’t find that picture lying about on the floor, and it didn’t fall on them from above. They have essentially burglarised Rosalind’s office to get to it. I would be more inclined to forgive them if I knew they did it in a selfless quest for knowledge, and if Rosalind really was that spiteful data-hoarding weirdo they portrayed her to be after she died. But she wasn’t and they didn’t. They did everything possible to make sure nobody paid attention to the source of their enlightenment. The ensuing priority game about who says what, where, and in what sequence, was as foul as it gets.

    • @Westchester–

      “Politically correct” because I try to bring out the unsung accomplishments of Franklin? Or, politically correct because I defame some old white guy?

      Perhaps you are not understanding this. In the bad old days of X-ray crystallography, exposure to radiation was huge. This would be like you dismissing the likely etiology of lung cancer in someone who smoked five packs of cigarettes a day for 20 years.

      Even *had* she used proper precautions, the exposure was still way too much.

      Did you miss the part where I noted that Watson and Crick were–up to the point they saw the pictures–sticking to Pauling’s incorrect model?

  7. My reading of much of the history around this (as a student of Genetics in the UK) was that Franklin’s images were of minor interest at King’s because there were focussing on a different form of DNA crystals and it was Watson and Crick who recognized that the B-form (with the appropriate water molecules) was the most appropriate one to use. Yes, Franklin (and Wilkins) would have got around to these crystals at some stage, but recognizing them for what they were is the basis for Watson’s claim about Franklin.

    She was – by all accounts – extremely careful not to make any deductions she considered to be premature and – basically – got gazumped by someone who did just that (and got it right, but only after quite a few attempts getting it spectacularly wrong!). That she was also prickly with colleagues explains why there was felt to be a need to go around her, but I think the including of Wilkins in the Noble prize was recognition of the role that X-ray crystallography played in determining the structure and it was undoubtedly only the fact that she had died which prevented her being included. To say that Maurice Wikins “finally” acknowledged her is really not correct as he is on record clearly attributing the seminal diffraction pictures to Franklin at the time of the Nobel award and noted that she should have been a recipient.

    Franklin is certainly not unsung in any Genetics milieu I have been involved in. I suspect she would not have been too worried about being well known to anyone else.

    • @Rob–

      “Franklin is certainly not unsung in any Genetics milieu I have been involved in.” And that is the problem, of course.

      Every school kid knows of Watson and Crick, but no one outside of the field has heard of Franklin.

      Not to belabor this post, but I find the references to her personality, after the fact, of course, to be quite convenient. And, you’re right—she probably would not have cared about her legacy. But then, this little thing certainly did make the career of others, didn’t it?

      As to Wilkins noting that Franklin should have been a recipient of the award, I would love to see your reference for this. Wilkins did mention her name in his Nobel lecture, but fell quite short of saying she should have shared the award.

    • I think you’re overreacting, Shaw. Every documentary I’ve ever seen of the discovery of DNA features Franklin prominently. In fact, in the drama Life Story, she was the most sympathetic of all the characters. In short, the only one who wasn’t a jerk.

      I had been lead to believe that the only reason she hadn’t received the Nobel was because posthumous nominations were not allowed.

  8. @ben–

    True enough, but none of this occurred circa 1962, and the coverage at the time made scant mention of her. Perhaps, you are referring to the material produced AFTER this business came to light.

    Posthumous excuse–again–very conveniently much after the fact. i.e. “She couldn’t have received the prize anyway, so who cares?”

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