The discovery of the structure of DNA was one of the most important scientific achievements in the last century, in human history, in fact. The now-famous double helix is almost synonymous with Watson and Crick, two of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize for figuring it out. But there’s another name you may know, too, Rosalind Franklin.
You may have heard that her data supported Watson and Crick’s brilliant idea, or that she was a plain-dressing, belligerent scientist, which is how Watson actually described her in “The Double Helix.” But thanks to Franklin’s biographers, who investigated her life and interviewed many people close to her, we now know that that account is far from true, and her scientific contributions have been vastly underplayed.
Let’s hear the real story. Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London in 1920. She wanted to be a scientist ever since she was a teenager, which wasn’t a common or easy career path for girls at that time. But she excelled at science anyway. She won a scholarship to Cambridge to study chemistry, where she earned her Ph.D., and she later conducted research on the structure of coal that led to better gas masks for the British during World War II. In 1951, she joined King’s College to use x-ray techniques to study the structure of DNA, then one of the hottest topics in science.
Franklin upgraded the x-ray lab and got to work shining high-energy x-rays on tiny, wet crystals of DNA. But the acadmemic culture at the time wasn’t very friendly to women, and Franklin was isolated from her colleagues. She clashed with Maurice Wilkins, a labmate who assumed Franklin had been hired as his assistant. But Franklin kept working, and in 1952, she obtained Photo 51, the most famous x-ray image of DNA. Just getting the image took 100 hours, the calculations necessary to analyze it would take a year.
Meanwhile, the American biologist James Watson and the British physicist Francis Crick were also working on finding DNA’s structure. Without Franklin’s knowledge, Wilkins took Photo 51 and showed it to Watson and Crick. Instead of calculating the exact position of every atom, they did a quick analysis of Franklin’s data and used that to build a few potential structures. Eventually, they arrived at the right one. DNA is made of two helicoidal strands, one opposite the other with bases in the center like rungs of a ladder. Watson and Crick published their model in April 1953. Meanwhile, Franklin had finished her calculations, come to the same conclusion, and submitted her own manuscript.
The journal published the manuscripts together, but put Franklin’s last, making it look like her experiments just confirmed Watson and Crick’s breakthrough instead of inspiring it. But Franklin had already stopped working on DNA and died of cancer in 1958, never knowing that Watson and Crick had seen her photographs. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA. It’s often said that Franklin would have been recognized by a Nobel Prize if only they could be awarded posthumously.
And, in fact, it’s possible she could have won twice. Her work on the structure of viruses led to a Nobel for a colleague in 1982. It’s time to tell the story of a brave woman who fought sexism in science, and whose work revolutionized medicine, biology, and agriculture. It’s time to honor Rosalind Elsie Franklin, the unsung mother of the double helix.