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Rosalind Franklin’s groundbreaking work was left out of DNA discovery story

All she got was sniping about her looks from the men who got the credit

British chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Elsie Franklin is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

By Elise Knutsen

In early May 1952, an X-ray machine in the lab of Dr. Rosalind Franklin was busy beaming rays at a single strand of DNA. After more than 100 hours of exposure, a photo emerged that would change the world forever: a dark and distinctive image showing the double helix shape of the life-transmitting molecule.

Locked in the crystalline helix corkscrew for almost three million years of human history, the information was a massive step toward knowing “the secret of life.” Franklin’s photograph and subsequent calculations launched a rapid development in our understanding of gene transmission, ushering the stuff of family lore and speculation — from eye color to early baldness — into the realm of biochemistry.

But credit would be awarded to a rival team of scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, who in 1953 gained access to Franklin’s data and photograph without her knowledge.

History is written by the victors — in this case, quite literally — and the version of events that would be canonized came in the form of James Watson’s book The Double Helix, published in 1968. Gamely recalling his pursuit of “foreign girls” and long whiskey-soaked evenings, Watson casts Rosalind Franklin as “Rosy,” the tempestuous feminist misanthrope, a secondary character to be alternately pitied and chuckled at.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, 1920-1958. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

“There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents,” wrote Watson in his bestseller.

Over the years, more than a million readers have consumed Watson’s words, while Franklin herself is unable to protest. She died in 1958, at the age of 37, four years before Watson, Crick, and one of her colleagues, Maurice Wilkins, received the Nobel prize for the discovery of the double helix.

Long before Watson introduced her to the world as a humorless second-best, Rosalind Franklin spent a charmed childhood in London. Born in 1920 to an affluent Anglo-Jewish family, Franklin’s early years were punctuated by vigorous family hiking trips abroad and praise for her achievements in math.

Starting at Cambridge at age 18, she grew fascinated with the still-new science of X-ray crystallography, which chemists and physicists were using to determine the structure of molecules. Measuring the angles of spots made by X-rays on long-exposure photographs, scientists were able to calculate how atoms linked up to form different substances.

Perfecting the art of aligning samples under the lens to produce the best images for analysis, Franklin graduated from Cambridge in 1941 as an adept chrystallographer. She took a job studying the chemical composition of coal for the British government soon after graduation and found herself once again divining the atomic characteristics of things unseen. Over the next three years, Franklin would test the chemical bonds of coal in different conditions, ultimately submitting her original research to Cambridge for a PhD in 1945.

After continuing charcoal research in France and earning a reputation as an expert in the field, Franklin agreed to take a job at King’s College as a research fellow. She was charged with using X-ray chrystallography to study a little understood molecule called DNA which some experts believed was responsible for storing genetic material. The keys to understanding life itself, they believed, lay in mapping the bonds of this arcane substance.

But Franklin was unhappy at King’s from the moment she set foot on campus. While overt sexism may have been less prevalent at King’s than at other institutions, Franklin was struck by the sex-segregated common rooms and the puckish boys-club debauchery. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins, another scientist working on the DNA project, was even led to believe she was his assistant, and Franklin became increasingly isolated in her lab.

James Watson, who was working with Francis Crick at Cambridge on a rival DNA research project, attended a lecture she gave and his only impression was to wonder “how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair,” he recalled in his infamous book.

But Franklin was making scientific strides: she discovered the difference between A “dry” and B “wet” DNA while experimenting with hydration levels of her samples. Understanding the difference between the two types of DNA allowed her to sharpen her x-ray images. She was soon producing the clearest images of DNA molecules ever seen. The now famous May 1952 image — known as photograph 51 — was among them.

(left) Franklin’s colleagues Francis Crick (far left) and James Watson (third from right) are pictured alongside fellow Nobel Prize recipients Maurice Wilkins, John Steinbeck, Max Perutz, and John Kendrew at an awards ceremony in 1962. (AP Photo/Pool) | (right) Photo 51 made visible the x-ray diffraction pattern of DNA. (Wikimedia)

Franklin was far more than a handy camera technician, however. She calculated, by hand, the angles of the spots on her X-ray images, drafting possible three-dimensional models of molecules based on her results. Analyzing a single photograph could take an entire year. Franklin’s lab notebooks show that in early 1953, she had quantitatively analyzed the images and concluded that the DNA molecule must be a double helix. Genetic traits, she determined, were stored on ladder-like rungs between two coiling rails.

Watson and Crick, too, were coming to that conclusion, but did not have the data to back up their hypothesis. After obtaining access to both photo 51 and an unpublished report Franklin made to the Medical Research Council overseeing funding for King’s College biophysics work — without Franklin’s knowledge — the duo were able to complete their model of the double-helix DNA molecule and draft a paper on their findings.

“Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at King’s realized they were in our hands,” Watson admitted.

In April 1953, three different papers were published in Nature magazine revealing the DNA molecule as a double helix: one by Watson and Crick, a second with Wilkins listed as the senior author, and a final paper written by Franklin and her student Raymond Gosling. Watson and Crick’s paper appeared first in the issue, and their names would be associated with the discovery for decades to follow.

Franklin died from ovarian cancer just five years later at the age of 37, never receiving public credit for the data relied upon in their paper. The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, so it is impossible to know whether Franklin would have been included in the 1962 ceremony that bestowed the honor on Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, but when the three accepted, she was scarcely mentioned.

One thing is certain: Franklin died fighting for research funding in an under-equipped lab while Watson and Crick had established themselves as the discoverers of the double helix. Meanwhile, the narrative of “Rosy” the dour lady-scientist had been enshrined in the public record and consciousness.

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