The Unsung Heroine of the Double Helix

Yesterday was the sixtieth birthday of the DNA. Exactly 60 years ago on 25th April, 1953, Watson and Crick, two young researchers at the Cambridge shot to pinnacle of fame in the scientific world , published the double helical structure of the B-DNA molecule in the science journal Nature. The structure intuitively explained the molecule’s role as the carrier of genetic information across generations, by accounting for its stability and information retrieval. The duo along with Maurice Wilkins from the King’s College was awarded the Nobel (Physiology) in 1962 for their work on nucleic acids. Many have argued, and rightfully so, that a person deserved it much more than any of the three. But for her work, Watson and Crick would have been nowhere near the double helix. She was “Rosalind Franklin“.

Franklin was into X-ray crystallography and earlier worked on arrangement of atoms in the coal and graphite. It was her X-ray diffraction picture, which was shown to Watson by her colleague Wilkins, which was central to solving the structure of the DNA. Not surprisingly, she too had independently concluded it before Watson and Crick could. But, the Nature issue of 25th April, 1953 had 3 papers on the double helix structure: the first was the “original” paper elucidating the structure and the second and the third were papers by Wilkins and Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data on B and A forms of DNA, which served only as supporting documents to the former.

Here is a summary of events in the last two years of the race to the DNA which, I hope, would make you appreciate Franklin’s pivotal role in it.

  • May 1950: Wilkins and his graduate student, Raymond Gosling, obtain diffraction pictures of DNA.
  • January 1951: Franklin is appointed research associate at King’s College, London in MRC’s biophysics unit and is assigned to work on X-ray diffraction of DNA and guide Gosling by her boss, Randall.
  • During 1951: Franklin refines a focus X-ray tube and micro-camera ordered by Wilkins and, along with Gosling, discovers that there were two forms of DNA, termed A and B. Randall divides the work on DNA, Franklin chooses the A form.

    The cast of “Photograph 51” surrounds its heroine Rosalind Franklin, played by Kirsten Potter. Franklin is holding the famous photograph. Picture credits: Andry Laurence
  • November 1951: Franklin specified in a seminar, which was attended by Watson, why she believed the phosphate units were located on the outside, unlike the previous assumptions. Also, she asserted the degree of hydration of the double helix and its role in its stability.
  • May 1952: Franklin is convinced that A-DNA is not helical.
  • 30 January 1953: Watson goes to meet Wilkins, carrying a preprint of Linus Pauling’s incorrect proposal for DNA structure. As Wilkins is unavailable, meets Franklin and proposes that the four should collaborate before Pauling discovers his fault. Watson and Franklin get into a serious argument, which attracts Wilkins. Wilkins secretly shows Watson Franklin’s famous photograph 51 and is in turn shown Pauling’s incorrect preprint.
  • 25 April 1953: The three papers are published in the Nature. In a footnote, Watson and Crick barely acknowledge “having been stimulated by a general knowledge of” Franklin and Wilkin’s unpublished contribution.

After 1953, the four principal investigators had strikingly different fates.
Wilkins did much work to assert the double helical structure during the 1950s for which he won the Albert Lasker in 1960 and the Nobel in 1962 along with Watson and Crick. He became the founding President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. He died on October 5th, 2004 aged 87.
Crick popularized the term central dogma and was central to the idea of the genetic code. He was a very vocal atheist. He transitioned into theoretical neuroscience when he moved to the Salk Institute later during his career.He died of colon cancer on July 28th, 2004.
Watson served as director, president and subsequently the chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. He has authored many books, most famously “The Double Helix”. Incidentally, he too was an atheist.
Franklin never got the recognition she deserved while she lived. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the young age of 37.


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