Scientist in the Shadows

October 21, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

My pharmacist dad reveled in books about epic breakthroughs in medicine and science. On my bookshelf, I found his copy of The Double Helix (1968), a memoir by James Watson of his discovery with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, a feat for which they won a Nobel Prize in 1962. This discovery paved the way for stunning scientific advances, including the mRNA vaccines that have proved so vital in the Covid pandemic.

To Dad, Watson and Crick were heroes, but what Double Helix didn’t divulge was that the Watson-Crick DNA model rested on the research of another scientist, Rosalind Franklin.  Double Helix presented Rosalind Franklin (disparagingly called “Rosy”) merely as a comic villain – a bad-tempered, arrogant shrew too incompetent to interpret her own data.

Over the past decades, scholars have largely corrected the colossal and chauvinistic understatement of Rosalind Franklin’s role in the DNA story. Most recently, two fascinating books illuminate her life and work. For an enjoyable novel about Rosalind Franklin, read Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict. To dig deeper, try The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix by Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan.

An English Education

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was born into an eminent Jewish banking family that had roots in England dating back to the 1700s. Her illustrious relatives included London’s first Jewish Lord Mayor (David Solomons), an Attorney General for Mandatory Palestine (Norman Bentwich), and the first High Commissioner of Palestine (Herbert Louis Samuel).

Keenly interested in science, Franklin, age 17, sat for the Cambridge University entrance examinations in mathematics and physics. At the time, Cambridge had only two women’s colleges, compared to 22 for men; university-wide, there were 500 places for women compared to 5,000 places for men. Nonetheless, Franklin was offered a place at Cambridge and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.

DNA Research

In 1951 Franklin became a research fellow at the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College in London. The head of the lab, John Randall, wanted Franklin to study DNA using her expertise in X-ray crystallography, a technique for investigating the structure of molecules. In a letter describing her employment, Randall gave Franklin sole responsibility for this research, previously done by another scientist, Maurice Wilkins.

Over the next two years, Franklin and graduate student Raymond Gosling laboriously developed and refined methods to X-ray DNA material. They then analyzed their X-ray photographs using painstaking mathematical calculations, which yielded invaluable data about DNA’s structure.

In what Professor Markel’s Secret of Life calls “one of the most egregious ripoffs in the history of medicine,” Maurice Wilkins accessed and surreptitiously shared Franklin’s key X-ray photo with Watson and Crick at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory. He did this without Franklin’s knowledge, and in violation of an agreement between the laboratory heads that DNA research was the domain of King’s College. Wilkins’ reasons have been guessed at for decades – a misunderstanding about lab hierarchy, a personality conflict, unrequited love, misogyny, or anti-Semitism. In any case, Wilkins’ perfidy was later rewarded; he was a co-recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick.

Beyond what they got from Wilkins, Watson and Crick gained further unauthorized access to Franklin’s work through a Cambridge colleague who improperly shared with them a British Medical Research Council report, intended for funding purposes, that included some of Franklin’s measurements.

Rosalind Franklin never learned that the Watson-Crick model was predicated on her appropriated research. Tragically, she died of cancer in 1958, possibly due to massive radiation exposure in her laboratory work.