“. . . 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.

What 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 DNA model.

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 Helix.

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report from the Medical Research Council, a British agency for funding life sciences, summarizing much of Franklin’s unpublished work on DNA, including precise measurements of the molecule.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 Franklin’s

“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)



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