Let's remember Rosy
This month marks 50 years since the most important discovery of our time--the structure of DNA. It had many fathers but only one mother, the unheralded Rosalind Franklin. Only after her death did codiscoverer James Watson fully reveal that this golden molecule had been divined with the keen insights and golden hands of "Rosy," but without her knowing it. Beautiful science is not always done beautifully.
At Cambridge University's storied Cavendish Laboratory, Watson and Francis Crick doggedly pursued what they saw as the basic riddle of life. They sifted and chose from other scientists to create their own imaginative theories of what the molecule might look like. Through trial and error they fitted what was known with what they believed would be needed for a molecule that could serve as the code for all living traits and replicate itself. They used balls and wires to build models, experimenting only with their instincts as they leapt confidently beyond available data.
Their first stab was a fiasco, and Franklin herself debunked it. They were told to drop their DNA work, but they quietly persisted. A little over a year later, these brash young men produced a second model that was perfect. This time they had Rosy's elegant work in hand.
Form and function. Franklin, working at Kings College, London, was an exquisite experimentalist. She used X-ray beams pulsed through crystals of DNA to produce images, thus deciphering the molecule's dimensions, angles, and turns. She realized DNA was a helix, with at least two strands and with the chemical "letters" facing inward. Watson and Crick brilliantly introduced function into this form. By pairing the letters on the DNA strands, they envisioned a helix that could pull apart, with separate strands serving as templates for new, identical copies.
With Franklin's rival at Kings, Maurice Wilkins, Watson and Crick went on to win the Nobel Prize for this work in 1962. Four years before, Franklin had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. The winners downplayed her contributions for years, and neither Watson nor Crick acknowledged her in their Nobel addresses. But why?
Franklin, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, was a woman apart in the clubby, gossipy, WASPy world of 1950s British academe. A fact-driven, cautious scientist, she was often feared in what was seen by her colleagues as the DNA race. Her prickly personality, blunt criticism, and unwillingness to kowtow made her a target for their wrath. But the real reason Watson and Crick failed to fully credit her DNA work early on was that they never told her they were using it.
In Watson's bestseller The Double Helix, a riveting confessional published in 1968, he revealed that Wilkins was secretly duplicating Franklin's work at Kings and providing it to him, including her now famous X-ray image proving the helical structure. A Cambridge buddy with access to a privileged government review of her lab passed on further details of her unpublished work. In his book, Watson describes how crucial these data were. He readily admits that in the sprint to the finish he could discount other competitors, because it would have been almost impossible to "pick off the structure in total ignorance" of Rosy's X-ray work. And in a soulful epilogue he concedes the magnitude of her contributions.
Upon learning of Watson and Crick's magnificent model, Wilkins immediately congratulated the "old rogues," now on the brink of fame and fortune: "As one rat to another, good racing." Franklin's reaction was different. Having trashed their earlier incorrect proposal, she joyously embraced the ingenious new theory. Of course, it was consistent with her own work. Out of graciousness or a desire to validate their theories--or perhaps out of guilt--Watson and Crick wished to have her X-ray studies in a paper following their own in the journal Nature. To this she happily agreed.
And, in so doing, Rosalind Franklin affirmed her private passion. Science, she wrote her father, was about truth and faith applied to "the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future." After all is said and done and the curtain falls on the players, knowing DNA's structure and function is the grand feat that ripples through time, bringing ever more benefits to health and human happiness. Its truth transcends the misbehavior of those who raced to claim its secrets. Rosy never figured out the full DNA structure all on her own; but neither did Watson and Crick.
This story appears in the February 24, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.