“. . . not aware of the details of the results presented
there when we devised our structure.”
Here, Watson and Crick say that they "were not aware of the details"
of the work of King’s College scientist Rosalind Franklin—a
statement that marks what many consider an inexcusable failure to give
Franklin proper credit.
According to Lynne Elkin, a science historian at California State University,
Hayward, it’s true that Watson and Crick were not aware of all the
details of Franklin’s work, but they were aware of enough of the
details to discover the structure of DNA. Yet this paper does not ever
formally acknowledge her, instead concealing her significant role by saying
they "were not aware" of her work.
exactly was Franklin’s research, and how did Watson and Crick gain
access to it? While they were busy building their models, Franklin was
at work on the DNA puzzle using X-ray crystallography, which involved
taking X-ray photographs of DNA samples to infer their structure. By late
February 1953, her analysis of these photos brought her close to the correct
But Franklin stopped her work on DNA because she was frustrated with a
strained environment at King’s, one that pitted her against her
colleagues. In an institutional culture that barred women from the dining
room and other social venues, she was denied access to the informal discourse
that is essential to any scientist’s work. Seeing no chance for
a tolerable professional life at King’s, Franklin decided to take
another job. As she was preparing to leave, she turned her X-ray photographs
over to her colleague Maurice Wilkins.
Then, in perhaps the most pivotal moment in the search for DNA’s
structure, Wilkins, a longtime friend of Crick, showed Watson one of Franklin’s
photographs without Franklin’s permission. Watson recalled, "The
instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race."
To Watson, the cross-shaped pattern of spots in the photo meant that DNA
had to have a helical structure. Franklin’s photograph was critical
in solving the problem, as Watson admitted in his 1968 book, The Double
Watson and Crick also had access to an internal report from the Medical
Research Council, a British agency for funding life sciences, summarizing
much of Franklin’s unpublished work on DNA, including precise measurements
of the molecule. As the Cavendish representative to the agency, scientist
Max Perutz had a copy of the report, and when Crick asked to see it, Perutz
obliged. While the report was not confidential, science historian Lynne
Elkin contends that "showing unpublished work to an unacknowledged
competitor was a questionable act which justifiably infuriated" John
Randall, the head of King’s.
Crick later said the data in the report enabled him to reach the significant
conclusion that DNA has two chains running in opposite directions. Although
Franklin was listed in the acknowledgements section with other scientists,
there was no specific mention
of her contributions.
Was it unethical for Wilkins to reveal the photographs, or for Perutz
to hand over the King’s report? How should Watson and Crick have
recognized Franklin for her contribution to their paper? For decades,
scientists and historians have wrestled over these issues.
To read more about Rosalind Franklin and her history with Wilkins, Watson,
and Crick, see the following Web sites:
“Light on a Dark Lady” by Anne Piper, a lifelong friend of
“The Double Helix and the Wronged Heroine,” an essay on Nature’s
“Double Helix: 50 years of DNA” Web site
A review of Brenda Maddox’s recent book, Rosalind Franklin:
The Dark Lady of DNA, in The Guardian (UK)