and the Double Helix
By Joan Schmelz
Joan T. Schmelz is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Memphis. She received her
Ph.D. from Penn State University in Astronomy in 1987. Her research involves the investigation of
properties and dynamics of the solar corona, using spectroscopic and imaging data in the X-rays and
EUV. Her most recent work provides observational constraints for the coronal heating problem.
IN THE SPRING OF 1953, Rosalind
Franklin of King’s College, London was perilously
close to unraveling the mystery of
DNA structure – the famous double helix. But
before her analysis was complete, she was beaten
to the punch by
James Watson and
Francis Crick of
Cambridge, who later
won the Nobel Prize
for their efforts. We all
know the story, right?
Watson himself wrote
his colorful recollections
in the book entitled
The Double Helix,
and some of us may
have even read this
book as part of an
course back in our high school days.
Watson writes extensively about Franklin
in The Double Helix. More precisely, he
introduces us to a fictional character he calls“Rosy”, a lab assistant to Maurice Wilkins (who
shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick),
with a disagreeable, cantankerous personality
and a frumpy unladylike way of dressing.
Watson obsesses about Rosy’s appearance,
musing what she might look like if she did
something with her hair and took off her glasses.
According to Anne Sayre, the author of Rosalind
Franklin and DNA, Rosy was not recognizable as
Rosalind Franklin. In fact, Franklin worked on
an equal footing with Wilkins, her hair was elegantly
styled, and she never wore glasses! What’s
Watson up to? we find ourselves wondering.
Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25,
1920 in London to a happy family with a
long history of socialist rather than scientific
accomplishments. She was educated at
Cambridge and worked for British Coal during
the war. Her early research papers on the
microstructures of coal are still referenced today.
Peter Hirsch of Oxford University called her
work “remarkable. She brought order to a field
that had previously been in chaos,” and she did
it all between the ages of 22 – 26.
In 1947, Franklin went to France (she spoke
excellent French) to begin working as a
chercheur at the Laboratoire Central des
Services Chimiques de l’Etat. Anne Sayre
suggests that it was probably the happiest time
of her life – she was young, she was living in postwar
Paris, and she was learning the techniques
of X-ray diffraction from Jacque Méring.
Méring was an acknowledged expert in
crystallography with an interest in the structure
of graphite, an amorphous substance that
challenged the state-of-the-art techniques in
everything from sample preparation and
handling to data acquisition and interpretation.
Franklin’s apprenticeship with Méring soon
turned into a collaboration. The experience
prepared her for the scientific challenges of
unraveling the structure of DNA, but nothing
could have prepared her for the personal
antagonism she was about to encounter at
Franklin returned to England in 1951 to
take up a position in the laboratory of Professor
John Randall at King’s College, London. Her
job was to use her newly acquired skills in
crystallography to organize, supervise, and carry
out X-ray diffraction work on DNA. Here, she
was on an equal footing with Maurice Wilkins
who specialized in the biochemical and biophysical
aspects of DNA. The DNA work did not belong
to Wilkins, as Watson misinforms
us; if it belonged anywhere (in
the English research tradition that
has no American equivalent), it
belonged at Randall’s Lab.
Franklin and Wilkins clashed
almost from the beginning. We may
never know the reasons, but we do
know the implications: Franklin
worked essentially in isolation (with
graduate student, Raymond
Gosling), while Wilkins developed
a friendship with Watson and
Crick that led to the Nobel Prize.
What did Franklin have to do
with the successful Watson-Crick-
Wilkins collaboration? Watson all
but admits in The Double Helix that
he nursed his friendship with
Wilkins in order to get his hands on
Franklin’s proprietary data. It seems that whenever he was in need of inspiration, he
was off again on the train to London to have
lunch with Wilkins and gossip about Franklin’s latest results. (If this sound unbelievable, read
the books and draw your own conclusions.)
Franklin’s progress is well documented in
her own laboratory notes as well as in the
reports she submitted to Randall. She spent the
greater part of her first eight months at
King’s College assembling the equipment
necessary for cutting-edge X-ray
diffraction work. By the autumn of
1951, she had succeeded in isolating
and imaging a new form of DNA. At
that point, Franklin knew that the
DNA molecule was a large helix
with multiple chains, that the
phosphate backbones were on the
outside of the structure, and that there
were phosphate bonds available to link
to proteins. She had also measured some
of the key angles of the helical structure.
What she did not know was that she was in
a race with Watson and Crick who were
using her results to build a model of the
DNA structure. She continued with her careful
detailed analysis, unaware that the team from
Cambridge was missing just one crucial piece of
data. In early 1953, Watson and Wilkins were
again discussing Franklin’s results, but this time,
Wilkins went one step further. When Watson
asked his friend what Franklin’s new form of
DNA looked like, Wilkins showed him the
picture! He did this not only without Franklin’s
permission, but also without her knowledge.
Watson raced back to Cambridge to share this
with Crick. There was a month or two of
frenzied activity, and, in April 1953, Watson and
Crick announced the double helix structure of
DNA. The race was over.
Franklin took up a position at Birkbeck Lab
soon after the announcement. She spent the rest
of her few remaining years working on the
structure of viruses and left a legacy of over a
dozen journal publications. She died of cancer
on April 16, 1958, without ever knowing of the
enormous contributions she made to the discovery
of the structure on DNA.
In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the
Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology.
James Watson.The Double Helix. New York:
Anne Sayre. Rosalind Franklin and DNA.
London: Norton, 1987.
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