This week I’m going back to my science roots, to a woman who died on this day, fifty-six years ago. When I worked at King’s College London, I was based in the Frankin-Wilkins building. Its namesakes, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, were runners-up in the race to discover of the molecular structure of DNA. Like many, I’d only heard of Watson and Crick. But Rosalind Franklin could have taken all the credit for the discovery of the double helix, if only she’d got on better with her colleague.
Born in 1920 into a rich Jewish family, Rosalind decided to be a scientist at 15 and got a place at Cambridge in 1938, but her father refused to pay at first; he didn’t believe in university education for women. She began a successful academic career, publishing five papers on the structure and uses of coal before she was 26, and her work helped launch carbon fibre technology.
She then worked in X-ray diffraction – the use of X-rays to create images of crystals – and accepted a job in King’s College London with Wilkins. The two had a prickly relationship, not helped by a misunderstanding at the start: he thought she’d been employed as his assistant rather than a peer. Their personalities also clashed: he was introverted, methodical and passive; she was outspoken, quick and decisive. Other aspects of her working life, such as inequality of pay and the fact that she wasn’t allowed to eat lunch in the same common room as the male scientists, frustrated her. Eventually, she became so unhappy that her colleagues called her ‘the dark lady’. In 1953 she moved to Birkbeck college to get away from King’s.
But Wilkins and Franklin’s mutual dislike had terrible consequences. Franklin was very close to deciphering the structure of DNA and had a paper accepted by Nature. But Wilkins, frustrated by Franklin, had become friends with Crick and Watson in Cambridge. In the course of Franklin’s move to Birkbeck, Wilkins got hold of her notes and images of DNA, which have been described as ‘the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,’ and showed them to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. ‘Photograph 51’ revealed two clear strands, giving the Cambridge men the last piece in the jigsaw. “My mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” Watson later wrote in his book, The Double Helix.They created the model of DNA that gave them their place in history. Two weeks later, they rushed out their paper in Nature, without fully acknowledging Franklin’s work. The same issue of the journal contained Franklin’s paper, but relegated her work as confirming Watson and Crick’s findings, rather than enabling it.
Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick saw her images, and later became friends with them. But Birkbeck was a happier time for her; she turned her talents to studying viruses, went on to publish 17 papers in five years, including groundbreaking work on the tobacco mosaic virus, and was liked and respected by all who worked with her. In 1956 she travelled to the US and fell in love with a scientist, but at this time she noticed the pain that was the first symptom of ovarian cancer, probably a result of her work with X-rays, so she ended the relationship. She died two years later, at 37. Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel prize for medicine in 1962 for their work on DNA. But Franklin was forgotten, because Nobel prizes aren’t given posthumously.
These days, Franklin is rightly acknowledged, but nothing can right the wrong that Wilkins did to her. On her tombstone is engraved the words: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind.” Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to science was more important than she ever knew.