Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First

It’s a standard science trivia question: Who discovered the structure of DNA? With the basic concepts of molecular biology now taught at a fairly detailed level in grade school, and with DNA being so easy to isolate that it makes a good demonstration project for school or home, everyone knows the names of Watson and Crick. But not many people know the story behind one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, or the name of the scientist without whose data Watson and Crick were working blind: Rosalind Franklin.

Born in London in 1920, Rosalind Elsie Franklin was the second child and first girl of a prominent and wealthy banking family. According to her aunt, even at the age of six she showed “alarmingly clever” tendencies, excelling at memory games and performing arithmetic for fun. She was impeccably educated and encouraged in her academic pursuits by her family, her father being a sort of amateur scientist who taught electricity and magnetism at a men’s college. He even bought a woodworking bench and tools, so that his children might learn a useful trade. Rosalind was the primary user of the tools, learning skills that would eventually serve her well in science.

Starting at Newnham College, the women’s college at the University of Cambridge, just as the world was falling apart in 1938, Rosalind excelled at chemistry. Determined to do her part for the war effort, Rosalind signed on to the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) in 1942. She would make valuable discoveries about the microscopic structure of coal which would lead to improvements in gas mask designs, important to both the military and civilians, with memories of the horrors of chemical warfare still fresh from the Great War.

Rosalind in Paris. Source: Royal Society of Chemistry

After the war, Rosalind spent several years in Paris, studying X-ray crystallography under Jacques Mering. The fact that crystalline substances diffract X-rays into patterns characteristic of their structure was long known, and by this time all the low-hanging fruit of naturally crystalline materials like metals, or easily crystallized organic substances, had pretty much been played out.

The interesting problems in X-ray crystallography were turning to biologically important molecules, like penicillin, hemoglobin, and insulin. These would prove to be much tougher nuts to crack because they were vastly more complex than a lump of carbon and therefore much harder to crystallize. It was such amorphous substances that Mering worked on with Franklin, and as her skills as a crystallographer grew under his guidance, so did her reputation.

Rosalind left her beloved Paris in 1950 when she was offered a fellowship at King’s College in London. Originally assigned to use X-ray diffraction to study proteins, the director of her unit, John Randall, quickly switched her to work on nucleic acids. Both proteins and nucleic acids, like DNA and RNA, had proven difficult to analyze with X-ray diffraction, and Rosalind’s skills were sought to bolster the unit’s existing crystallography group.

Rosalind would quickly learn how badly things can go when communications break down. Rosalind arrived to find less than adequate facilities at King’s. The college had suffered greatly during the Blitz, with a bomb crater in the courtyard that still needed to be navigated around. Maurice Wilkins, who had already started work on DNA crystallography at King’s, was somehow under the impression that Franklin would be his assistant. He had been on sabbatical when Franklin arrived and was distressed to learn that she had taken over his lab, having not only rebuilt the X-ray camera but also started advising his former doctoral student, Raymond Gosling. This was what the director wanted, but Randall had never communicated that to Wilkins. Understandably upset and obviously upstaged by the far more skilled Franklin, this set the stage for the academic intrigue that was to come.

If Randall’s poor management style was like gasoline poured on a pile of brush, the spark that lit it off was James Watson. Arriving at the Cavendish in 1952, the brash American wunderkind was intent on figuring out the structure of DNA. He was certain that physical model building was the way to accomplish this; after all, it had worked for Linus Pauling in working out the structure of alpha helices in proteins.  Along with Francis Crick, Watson had accurate scale models of all the components of DNA — the sugar deoxyribose, the phosphate groups, and the bases adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymidine — built out of wire and sheet metal by the Cavendish machine shop.

Try as they might, Watson and Crick couldn’t come up with a structure for DNA that made sense. At one point they even invited Franklin and Gosling over from King’s to look that their model; Rosalind, who by this point had determined crystallographically that there were two forms of DNA, the A-form and the B-form, knew in an instant that their model was wrong, and told them so in no uncertain terms. The Cavendish director, Lawrence Bragg, was humiliated and told Crick and Watson not to build any more models of DNA.

Photograph 51, an X-ray crystallogram of the B-form of DNA, by Gosling and Franklin, 1952. Source: Wikipedia

Without official support, Watson and Crick struggled in their work on the structure of DNA. It was during this time that they became aware of the existence of the now famous Photograph 51. Photo 51 was the best X-ray image yet produced by Franklin and Gosling of the B-form of DNA, which is the most biologically relevant form and the hardest to crystallize. How the photo got into the hands of Maurice Wilkins isn’t clear — Gosling himself says it could have been him or it could have been Rosalind. However it got to him, Wilkins took Photo 51 to the Cavendish and showed it to Watson and Crick.

A glance at the excellent image, with the characteristic X shape of a helix, was all that the model builders needed to see where their model had gone wrong. The spacing of the spots on the photo gave them the critical parameters they needed to complete their model. The structure of the molecule of life had been solved.

Whether Rosalind ever knew about the subterfuge or if she would have cared isn’t known. Watson and Crick didn’t directly acknowledge Franklin’s data in their 1953 paper, instead referring to their “stimulating discussions.” Rosalind, unhappy with the less than collegial environment at King’s, accepted a senior research position at Birkbeck College just before their paper was published. She continued X-ray diffraction work on nucleic acids; she and Gosling published the structure of the A-form of DNA later that year, and she made major contributions toward understanding the structure of RNA. She also set about using X-ray diffraction to study the structure of even more complicated structures — viruses — and managed to elucidate the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and many other plant viruses.

Sadly, Rosalind would never get to see the fruits of her work. She died of ovarian cancer in 1958, a few months shy of her 38th birthday. She was engaged and remarkably productive right up until the end, publishing papers and continuing work on the structure of poliovirus. She didn’t live to see Watson, Crick, and Wilkins win the Nobel Prize in 1962, but her closest friends — including Crick and his wife — agree that her only regret was leaving so much work unfinished.

56 thoughts on “Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First

    1. Yeah, I don’t think you need to bring up misogyny. You could’ve just said “the first comment on a Hackaday post about a scientist/inventor is ‘well, technically, [he/she/it/them] didn’t do it first'”. You see pretty much the same behavior about any historical science topic.

      1. Behavior? Assuming the Guardian article is correct then Mike Glazer responded to an article making a factual claim which is false by pointing out one that contradicts it. If that is a behavior it is a good one. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about truth for the sake of truth than agreement for the sake of not offending some author?

        1. “Mike Glazer responded to an article making a factual claim which is false by pointing out one that contradicts it”

          No, he didn’t. He responded to an exact grammatical detail in the article (‘seeing’) while missing the more subtle interpretation (‘recognizing what one is seeing’). There’s a phrase for this: nit-picking.

      1. That’s not exactly the same: just capturing a static image of any astrophysical body isn’t enough to discover it. In the case of a planet, you’d have to see motion of the planet against the fixed star background.

        In fact, there is an almost-identical example in the Neptune case, where James Challis (working with George Airy) *could* have detected Neptune (twice!) if he had realized what he was looking at, but he didn’t have an up-to-date star map for the region he was looking at to see the motion of the planet.

        You’re definitely right that they (and Astbury) shouldn’t get any credit for that, though. Interestingly they probably also shouldn’t get the bad reputation Challis and Airy got in the Neptune case, either. Not realizing the importance of something doesn’t necessarily make you a bad scientist, just not a great one.

      2. Come on now, it’s the title of the article. It’s the second largest font on the page. “Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First”.

        It doesn’t say anything about discovery now does it? Obviously her photo made a very important contribution to the history of scientific discovery. Why can’t we have an article that says that without simplifying things to the point of being factually incorrect.

    2. Chivalry is not required in this case. William Astbury snatches nothing from Rosalind Franklin’s merit. His photography was inconsequential, it made no difference, while one made by her was the one instrumental in the discovery.

      1. True. Her photo was more historically important.

        That still makes “Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First” a crappy title to a misleading article. “William Astbury sees it first but Rosalind Franklin makes it count”… that’s better. Although.. maybe that’s wrong too. We still don’t know how the photo actually came to Crick. What if it hadn’t? Would it have had any more affect on history than Willaim Astbury’s photo?

      2. True, but from the article, it seems Franklin also wasn’t the one who interpreted the photo. So on a direct par with Astbury. It was just a case of “right place, right time”.

    3. “Would Rosalind Franklin want everyone to forget about William Astbury’s acomplishment and celebrate the day that Rosalind Franklin “a woman” became the first person in the world to see DNA?”

      I’d have to imagine that as a decent scientist, she’d never want someone else’s work belittled. However, in science in general, if you have the opportunity for a discovery and you don’t recognize it, it’s a historical footnote, not an accomplishment.

      1. Indeed. She gets credit for having played an important role in the discovery of the structure of DNA because her photo was used. William Astbury is more of a footnote because his was not. Perhaps it was her better grasp of the importance of this that lead her to send the photo to Watson and Crick. Perhaps not, we don’t even know it was her that did it!!

        Astbury did still see DNA before her though so how is pointing that out in response to a claim that “Rosalind Franklin Saw DNA First” a reflection of “misogynistic tendencies”? At worst I could see one having an argument that presenting such “footnotes” is a bit of an “ocd” approach to truth. But… what is wrong with that? I for one believe that sticking to the facts and respecting the truth is far more admirable than scoring a point for some sort of gender war!

    4. Fair enough!

      We (Dan or I) didn’t know about a previous crystallograph. Should we change the title to “sparked the realization that a double-helix was the right shape”? It won’t fit, but it may be more accurate.

      Thanks for the citation! That’s very cool.

      It just goes to show that it’s important to share as much info/results as possible. The whole “race” to find the structure of DNA would probably have been “won” significantly sooner if all of the parties involved were sharing results instead of trying to hoard the good stuff for themselves.

      Anyway, it was Franklin’s photo of the helix that (one way or another) got into Watson and Crick’s hands. And the rest is history.

    5. Devils advocate here…could you argue that a certain level of understanding is required in order to really “see” something? And thus maybe the article title is correct?

      Good Will Hunting:
      “I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play.”

      Hannibal Lecter: Are you a killer, Will? You. Right now. This man standing in front of me. Is this who you really are?
      Will Graham: I am who I’ve always been. The scales have just fallen from my eyes. I can see you now.

      This is the first I’ve heard of these people (Franklin and Astbury) but could it be argued that Astbury didn’t really “see DNA”? So “Franklin saw DNA first” thanks to her deeper understanding of it?

      #1 definitions according to Webster:
      See – “to perceive by the eye”
      Perceive – “to attain awareness or UNDERSTANDING of”

      And “technically”, neither one of them saw DNA. If anything, they only saw x-ray diffraction images of it.

  1. “With the basic concepts of molecular biology now taught at a fairly detailed level in grade school, and with DNA being so easy to isolate that it makes a good demonstration project for school or home, everyone knows the names of Watson and Crick. ”

    Heh, if only grade school was that good.

  2. Funny you should mention DNA, Crick, Watson, and Franklin. No more than 2 minutes ago, I was Googling on a great BBC film I saw: “Life Story” in the UK, “Race for the Double Helix” in the US.
    Starring Tim Pigott-Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and Juliet Stevenson. It tells the whole story, including Franklin’s key role in understanding the double-helix structure.

    The bad news: The film is only available on VHS tape, is very poor quality, and costs over $100.
    The good news: I FOUND IT ON LINE HERE!!! :

      1. That’s, uh, not how that works. “Educational purposes” means things like showing it in a classroom, not uploading it to an online video hosting site. But the uploader is the one who did the bad thing anyway, not the people viewing it.

    1. The point here is that people seem willing to trample a school yard of kindergarteners to get to a microphone so they can belittle someone’s discovery because he might have been misogynistic, instead of focusing on the actual greatness of scientists despite gender. I know HaD has posted about Noether before, but it seems that every article is tinged with feminism and not science. I agree that it is disgusting that women get 5 pennies, three nickels, three dimes and 2 quarters for every dollar a man makes for equivalent work, but seriously, focus on the science and facts and not the marxist aspects of the endeavor. Critical theory is not science. Fact is fact, evidence is evidence, and theories stand on the weight of how they fit the evidence, and not the social implications of their truth or the intersectionality of their gender disparity.

    2. Technically all of the laws of physics for this universe, discovered and yet to be discovered are implicit with just a look around at one’s surroundings. One just needs to “yank it out and shine it up”. If you can manage to do that then history will forever look upon you as far greater than Einstein. Good luck! :-P

  3. Great to see the story of Rosalind Franklin- there are so many interesting stories in the history of science- but they seem to be of little to no value to most major motion picture makers. Interesting use of the world “diffract”- this is, I think, a mistake of history. The theory of diffraction originated in 1665 by Francesco Grimaldo(1)- but the light Grimaldo describes may have just been reflected off the inside surface- so it may be a reflection phenomenon. This alternative explanation of diffraction as reflection was recognized and clearly published in 1912 by William Lawrence Bragg(2) .

    1) P. Francesco Maria Grimaldo, “Physico-mathesis de lumine, coloribus, et
    iride”, 1665.
    2) Bragg, W.L. The Diffraction of Short Electromagnetic Waves by a
    Crystal. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 1913: 17, pp.

  4. There is a long road from some insights into the structure towards the entire model. All three interesting parties published articles (Franklin separately from Wilkins; Watson and Crick separately from the other two) about DNA in the *same* issue of Nature. Only the Watson and Crick’s paper had the full model. Plus they had a marvelous insight at the end that the structure of the DNA may explain the nature of replication. The rest is history. The articles themselves are totally worth reading. There are obvious issues here, of course. Not properly attributing Franklin is a major injustice. Sadly, it happens nowadays as well. However the presumption that Watson and Crick didn’t contribute on a major way is false.

        1. “Probably induced by working so much around poorly shielded X-Ray equipment.”

          You know, I hadn’t thought about that, but I’ll bet you’re right. She died of breast cancer at age 37.

  5. Reminds me of William Shockley’s support of Eugenics, or Charles Lindbergh’s pre-war support of Nazi ideals.

    People forget that people who achieve remain human and capable of everything human – good and bad.

    1. It makes sense that people can be evil about something and great about another, or merely ordinary otherwise. I mean, it would take serious work to be evil about every single thing in your life. How do you eat your breakfast or brush your teeth in an evil way? Or in a heroic way?

    2. “People forget that people who achieve remain human and capable of everything human – good and bad.”

      This, in spades! The problem with hero worship is that the real person always falls short of your idealized version of them. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t admire people for the good they do, but also that we should forgive them their failings.

    3. Or Fritz Haber a jew who invented the large scale synthesis of ammonium for potassium fertilizer that could feed so much people on earth for the first time. On the other hand he was the father of the gas warfare, invented phosgen and chlorinegas, built the german gas corps in the first world war and then zyklon b.

  6. There was also an important insight discovered before called Chagraff rule. That in the DNA molecule the amount of A’s equals to amount of T’s and amount of G’s equals to amount of C’s. This hints at A:T, G:C pairing, which is an important constraint for the model.

  7. So I read an article like this and realize that I really don’t understand academics or the need to re-write history. From reading other papers and articles on this my understanding is that Gosling took photograph 51 as part of his thesis, He was Franklin’s student at the time but had been working on this under Wilkins before Franklin came to Kings college and was still working on it after he became Wilkins student again and the photo was shown to Watson. I will acknowledge that Franklin made contributions to the work but to now try and make it seem like she had discovered DNA first on her own and that Watson, Crick and Wilkins somehow stole her discovery is wrong, I mean it is Goslings photo so shouldn’t the title be “Raymond Gosling saw it first”?

  8. That was typical British sexism. Similarly competent women were fired from WW2 jobs when the men cam back. It was less severe in the USA where women had already been socially emancipated. Even now it persists – at a great cost…

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