Was DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin really the victim of a scientific theft?

by The Insights

Rosalind Franklin contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA

agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Rosalind Franklin should be considered an equal contributor to solving DNA structure, not a victim of theft, argue two scholars in a paper marking the 70th anniversary of Francis Crick and James Watson’s paper on DNA DNA structure. They say a sloppy letter and a draft magazine article add to the evidence that the popular view of Franklin’s role is wrong.

“It robs her of her agency,” says Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester, UK. “It is not fair.”

According to many accounts, Franklin, a chemist from King’s College London, did all the hard work to unravel the structure of DNA, but Crick and Watson from the University of Cambridge got their hands on a key X-ray image that she took – Photograph 51 – by nefarious means, allowing them to publish the solution before her. This idea derives from Watson’s 1968 book The double helix, but that’s not true, says Cobb. Watson used Photo 51 as a dramatic device.

The whole picture revealed is that DNA is helical, which was already known. Additionally, the image was taken by Franklin graduate student Raymond Gosling, who shared it with Maurice Wilkins, the deputy director of the biophysics lab, along with his acquaintances. Wilkins then showed it to Watson.

More important to the discovery than Photo 51 was a Medical Research Council (MRC) report that included a page from Franklin about his work. This was given to Crick by his supervisor, Max Perutz. The data from this MRC report did not reveal the structure to Crick and Watson, but was key to confirming their model, Cobb says.

Cobb and Nathaniel Comfort, a medical historian at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, found a 1953 letter to Crick from a researcher named Pauline Cowan. He invites Crick to a Franklin and Gosling conference, but says that since Perutz already knows more than could be in the conference, Franklin and Gosling think it might not be worth Crick attending. The letter shows that Franklin knew Perutz was sharing his findings with Crick and seemed fine with it.

“One of the reasons they’re so relaxed about it is that DNA wasn’t the big deal it is now,” Cobb says. It was only later that we realized its importance.

Cobb and Comfort also found a draft article from 1953 for Time Joan Bruce’s magazine that never appeared in print.

Bruce portrays a collaborative effort. She writes that although Wilkins and Franklin worked independently of Crick and Watson, “they bonded, occasionally confirming each other’s work or wrestling over a common issue”. It is unknown which version of the story this is, but the fact that Bruce sent the draft to Franklin for verification suggests that Franklin had spoken or corresponded with Bruce.

Indeed, there is no evidence that Franklin herself felt mistreated. In June 1953, she exhibited a DNA model at the Royal Society in London, presenting the structure as a joint effort.

Franklin also became friends with Crick and his wife, spending time with them while he was ill with the cancer that killed her in 1958. Between 1953 and her death, she did groundbreaking work on the viral structure which, alone, might well have earned him a Nobel Prize. price if she had lived.

The letter and the draft article are not so dramatic in themselves. Rather, they strengthen the case for an alternate version of history that others besides Cobb and Comfort have already offered.

In 2003, for example, Franklin biographer Brenda Maddox wrote in Nature that “the legend of Franklin, the Injured Heroine” “overshadowed her intellectual strength and independence both as a scientist and as an individual”. At the very least, Franklin’s story is more complex than the myth.


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