For a kid growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, 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 distinguished in the hard sciences. 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 50 years after the double helix structure was discovered, the optimistic notions of the resulting medical marvels proffered in the early 1960’s 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.