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Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix


By Joan Schmelz

January 2002

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 advanced biology 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
King’s College.


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.

 

REFERENCES

James Watson.The Double Helix. New York: Atheneum, 1968.

Anne Sayre. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. London: Norton, 1987.

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