What We’re Still Learning About Rosalind Franklin’s Unheralded Brilliance

Using new historical evidence, two scientists argue the female chemist was more involved in discovering DNA’s structure than she got credit for

A photograph of Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin's work with X-ray imaging played an important part in the discovery of DNA's structure. Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Around 70 years ago, scientists discovered the double helix structure of DNA. This groundbreaking principle—that DNA was made of two intertwined strands—could be considered one of the most important biological findings of the 20th century, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

But the story behind this revelation is one of scientific impropriety and sexism. James Watson and Francis Crick, two scientists who later won a Nobel Prize for their research on DNA, are said to have stolen data from the chemist Rosalind Franklin that played a key role in their breakthrough.

Now, in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the journal Nature, two researchers argue that while Franklin faced discrimination and did not receive due credit for her contributions, she was a more active participant in the discovery of the double helix than history gives her credit for.

“She deserves to be remembered not as the victim of the double helix, but as an equal contributor to the solution of the structure,” Matthew Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester in England, and Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, write in the opinion article.

In the 1950s, Watson and Crick studied DNA at the University of Cambridge from a theoretical perspective, trying to represent its structure using cardboard cutouts, according to an editorial in Nature accompanying the opinion. Meanwhile, Franklin and her colleague Maurice Wilkins, a man who also received the Nobel Prize, worked on the experimental side at King’s College, using X-ray imaging to examine the molecule.

The story commonly told about their ensuing discovery stems from Watson’s 1968 book, called The Double Helix. In it, he wrote that without Franklin’s consent, he was shown an X-ray image she took of DNA, known as Photograph 51. He claims the image gave him the eureka moment that led to the discovery. The book also implies that Franklin didn’t notice the significance of her image.

But the authors of the new essay tell a different story—they suggest that Photograph 51 was not as central to the discovery as Watson made it out to be, and that his eureka moment was nothing more than a “literary device” to add drama.

Photograph 51 “played little, if any, part” in the revelation, write Cobb and Comfort. “If you know what the double helix structure of DNA is, amazingly you can see it in [the image], but the image doesn’t tell you that,” Cobb tells the Guardian’s Nicola Davis.

In reality, they write, it was a report on the King’s College scientists’ DNA research—including important work by Franklin—that was more instrumental for confirming the double helix model. Franklin did not share this research herself, but a letter to Crick from one of her colleagues suggests she was aware that the information was shown to the other two scientists, the authors write. In this way, the data was not outright stolen from her, they argue.

Still, Elspeth Garman, a molecular biophysicist at the University of Oxford, pushes back on this idea a little—she tells the New York Times Emily Anthes that Watson and Crick receiving Franklin’s unpublished work is “slightly iffy.”

The authors also cite an unpublished draft of an article for Time magazine, which was going to frame the discovery as a collaboration between the two groups of DNA researchers. The draft, which had not been described by historians until now, depicted Franklin as having an equal role in the work. Cobb and Comfort posit that, had the Time article been published, Franklin would have received more credit for her contributions.

She did receive some credit, though—an early display of the double helix included Franklin’s signature along with Watson’s and Crick’s. And in a 1954 paper, the men acknowledged their breakthrough “would have been most unlikely, if not impossible” without Franklin’s data, per the essay.

Even if the story of the double helix is less malicious than previously thought, Franklin still did not receive proper recognition for her work, experts tell the Times. Then, The Double Helix described Franklin in an unflattering way, and it did not acknowledge her where credit was due.

At the age of 37, Franklin died from cancer in 1958, just five years after the discovery. She did not live to read The Double Helix or see Watson and Crick receive the Nobel Prize. Neither of the men mentioned her contributions during their acceptance speeches, though Wilkins did.

“What is unequal and has always been unequal and is still unequal about Rosalind Franklin is the credit that she didn’t get in the aftermath of the discovery,” Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and historian of medicine at Queen’s University in Canada, tells the Times.

Howard Markel, a historian of medicine at the University of Michigan, tells Maddie Burakoff of the Associated Press (AP) that Franklin was “ripped off” by the other scientists and that they didn’t give her credit because she was a Jewish woman.

Franklin nonetheless made crucial advancements in the field, experts say. After her work on DNA, she went on to make important discoveries in virus research.

“Her family often express the wish that her immense contribution to science is celebrated and that she is not portrayed solely as a woman cheated by men,” James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, tells the Guardian.

Markel says to the AP that Franklin should be remembered “as a great scientist who was an equal contributor to the process.”

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