Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born 90 years ago today, on July 25 1920. Franklin was a biophysicist who produced the now famous x-ray of a DNA molecule known as Photo 51 when she worked at King’s College, London in 1951. The photo formed critical evidence that led to the confirmation of the postulated double helical structure of DNA. The image shown above is from the same series of x-rays and is held by Wellcome Images.

Franklin was rewarded little for her contribution towards the discovery of DNA's structure. Co-discoverers Francis Crick and James Watson from Cambridge University were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on nucleic acids (including DNA) alongside Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins. Franklin could not have been awarded in conjunction as she had died four years before, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. But some feel that Crick and Francis did not sufficiently acknowledge Franklin for producing her crucial evidence*, and many have observed a bitter rivalry between the three.

The Wellcome Library is currently digitising Crick’s personal papers as part of the Modern Genetics and its Foundations project. Although they later became friends, his letters reveal a strong competitive spirit between himself and Franklin, and a patronising view of "the dark lady of DNA", between 1951 and 1953. In a letter to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Crick says,

"Rosalind was a little difficult to get on with on occasions. She was usually charming but could be a bit spikey" (PP/CRI/D/1/3/1).

Franklin’s biographer, Lynne Elkin, wrote an article entitled 'Rosalind Franklin and the Double-Helix' that was published in March 2003 by Physics Today. She approached Crick for editorial advice. Their correspondence contains snippets of Crick’s dismissive attitude towards Franklin’s contribution: "Rosalind’s grasp of the idea of anti-parallel chains was very fleeting".

He goes on to suggest that he and Watson had already arrived at their conclusion regarding the structure of DNA before they saw Photo 51: "the only detail we learned from the B-photo was that the B form was clearly helical which we had been saying all along". In response, Elkin replies in an email to Crick’s assistant:

"I think that their treatment of REF has been like a sword hanging over their heads for 50 years with Jim being too insensitive to care, but Crick being more human … I have gotten a lot of response by people who very undiplomatically call them thieves and worse."

Further to the letters, the Library has more material on Franklin and the discovery of DNA. Wellcome Film holds a recording of the 1987 television film, The Race for the Double Helix. This dramatisation features Jeff Goldblum as Watson and Juliet Stevenson as Franklin. Wellcome Images’ historical collection includes this "funeral card" produced by Franklin and colleague Raymond Gosling, sent to Maurice Wilkins. It is a satirical observation on the unlikelihood of the A-DNA model. An explanation of their joke is here.

As the digitisation project proceeds, we hope more gems like this will be uncovered in the Library’s collections.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Crick and Watson published Photo 51 in the 1953 Nature paper without crediting Franklin. This is incorrect. A similar x-ray diffraction photograph is printed alongside their paper, but belongs to another paper by Wilkins, who does mention Franklin. The photograph in Wilkins' paper was taken by himself. We apologise for this oversight". (Correction made: 25th August 2010).

Authors: Julia Nurse and Louise Crane

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