Untangling Rosalind Franklin’s Role in DNA Discovery, 70 Years On

Historians have long debated the role that Dr. Franklin played in identifying the double helix. A new opinion essay argues that she was an “equal contributor.” 

On April 25, 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published a landmark paper in Nature, proposing the double helix as the long elusive structure of DNA, a discovery that a decade later earned the men the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In the final paragraph of the paper, they acknowledged that they had been “stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas” of two scientists at King’s College London, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

In the 70 years since, a less flattering story has emerged, thanks in large part to Dr. Watson’s own best-selling book, “The Double Helix.” In the book, he not only wrote disparagingly of Dr. Franklin, whom he called Rosy, but also said that he and Dr. Crick had used her data without her knowledge.

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

This account became a parable of poor scientific behavior, leading to a backlash against Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick and turning Dr. Franklin into a feminist icon. It also set off a long-running debate among historians: Precisely what role did Dr. Franklin play in the discovery of the double helix, and to what extent was she wronged?

In a new opinion essay, published in Nature on Tuesday, two scholars argue that what transpired “was less malicious than is widely assumed.” The scholars, Matthew Cobb, a zoologist and historian at the University of Manchester who is writing a biography of Dr. Crick, and Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University who is writing a biography of Dr. Watson, draw upon two previously overlooked documents in Dr. Franklin’s archive.

These documents, they say, suggest that Dr. Franklin knew that Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick had access to her data and that she and Dr. Wilkins collaborated with them. “We should be thinking of Rosalind Franklin, not as the victim of DNA, but as an equal contributor and collaborator to the structure,” Dr. Comfort said.

Other experts said that the new documents were interesting but did not radically change the narrative; it has long been clear that Dr. Franklin played a key role in the discovery. “What this does is add a little new evidence to a trail, which leads directly to Franklin’s being a major participant,” said David Oshinsky, a historian of medicine at New York University.

And regardless of what Dr. Franklin knew about who had access to her data, the new documents do not change the fact that she did not receive adequate recognition for her work, some historians said.

“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,” said Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, a hematologist and historian of medicine at Queen’s University, in Canada.

Seeing double

In the early 1950s, Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick were working together at the University of Cambridge, in Britain, trying to piece together the structure of DNA, largely by building models of the molecule.

At nearby Kings College London, Dr. Franklin and Dr. Wilkins were trying to solve the same puzzle experimentally, using X-rays to create images of DNA. (They had a famously fractious relationship, and largely worked separately.)

In “The Double Helix,” Dr. Watson suggested that his breakthrough came after Dr. Wilkins showed him one of Dr. Franklin’s images, known as Photograph 51. “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” Dr. Watson wrote.

That book was published in 1968, a decade after Dr. Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37, and it became the prevailing narrative of the discovery. But the real story was more complex.

In December 1952, Dr. Crick’s supervisor, the molecular biologist Max Perutz, received a report on Dr. Franklin’s unpublished results during an official visit to King’s College. Dr. Perutz later gave this report to Dr. Crick and Dr. Watson.

This data proved more useful to the pair than Photograph 51, said Dr. Cobb and Dr. Comfort, who found a letter that implies Dr. Franklin knew her results had made their way to Cambridge.

In the letter, which was written in January 1953, Pauline Cowan, a scientist at King’s College, invited Dr. Crick to an upcoming talk by Dr. Franklin and her student. But, Dr. Cowan wrote, Dr. Franklin and her student said that Dr. Perutz “already knows more about it than they are likely to get across so you may not think it worthwhile coming.”

That letter “strongly suggests” that Dr. Franklin knew the Cambridge researchers had access to her data and that she “doesn’t seem to have minded,” Dr. Cobb said.

Dr. Cobb and Dr. Comfort also found a draft of a never-published Time magazine article about the discovery of the double helix. The draft characterized the research not as a race but as the product of two teams that were working in parallel and occasionally conferring with each other.

“It portrays the work on the double helix, the solving of the double helix, as the work of four equal contributors,” Dr. Comfort said.

A question of credit

Elspeth Garman, a molecular biophysicist at the University of Oxford, said that she agreed with Dr. Comfort and Dr. Cobb’s conclusion, saying, “They got right that she was a full participant.”

But Dr. Perutz’s sharing of Dr. Franklin’s unpublished data is “slightly iffy,” she said. (In 1969, Dr. Perutz wrote that the report was not confidential but that he should have asked for permission to share it “as a matter of courtesy.”)

Still, other scientists and historians said they were puzzled by the arguments made in the Nature essay. Helen Berman, a structural biologist at Rutgers University, called them “sort of strange.” Of Dr. Franklin, she said, “If she was an equal member, then I don’t know that she was treated very well.”

Dr. Franklin and Dr. Wilkins each published their own results in the same issue of Nature that included Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick’s report, as part of a package of papers. But Dr. Berman wondered why the scientists did not collaborate on a single paper with shared authorship. And several scholars said that they thought the new essay minimized the wrongdoing by the Cambridge team.

Dr. Comfort said that he and Dr. Cobb were not “trying to exonerate” Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick, whom he said were “slow to fully acknowledge” Dr. Franklin’s contribution. Dr. Cobb said that the Cambridge scientists should have told Dr. Franklin that they were using her data. “They were ungallant,” he said. “They were not as open as they should have been.” But, he added, it wasn’t “theft.”

There is no evidence that Dr. Franklin felt aggrieved by what happened, historians said, and she became friendly with the Cambridge duo in the final years of her brief life. “As far as I can tell, there was no bad feeling,” Dr. Oshinsky said.

That might have changed had Dr. Franklin lived long enough to read “The Double Helix,” several scholars noted. “‘The Double Helix’ is just appalling,” Dr. Garman said. “It gives a very, very slanted view, and doesn’t give her the credit for the bits that they even used from her.”

Dr. Franklin’s early death also meant she missed out on the Nobel Prize, but the Nobel Assembly could have found other ways to acknowledge her contribution, said Nils Hansson, a historian of medicine at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, in Germany. Neither Dr. Watson nor Dr. Crick mentioned her when they accepted their awards, Dr. Hansson noted, although Dr. Wilkins, who also received the prize, did.

“She truly did get a raw deal,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a physician and historian of medicine at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Secret of Life,” a book about the discovery of the double helix. “Everyone likes to receive proper credit for their work. Everyone should care enough about their colleagues to ensure the process of fair play.”

Emily Anthes is a reporter for The Times, where she focuses on science and health and covers topics like the coronavirus pandemic, vaccinations, virus testing and Covid in children.

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