Double Helix Double Cross? <I>A Survey of Recent Articles</I>

Double Helix Double Cross? A Survey of Recent Articles

How much did James Watson and Francis Crick rely on Rosalind Franklin’s 1953 x-ray photographs to fashion their model of DNA’s double helix structure?

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The observance this year of
the 50th anniversary of the momentous discovery of the double helix
structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has been marked by reflections on
an alleged scientific injustice almost as much as by celebration of the
great scientific achievement.

Was Rosalind Franklin (1920–58), the British
scientist whose x-ray data on DNA played a crucial role in the discovery,
denied proper credit for her contribution by codiscoverers James Watson and
Francis Crick? A
Nova television documentary, “Secret of Photo 51,” broadcast on PBS
on April 22 (see class="text4">), was the most recent account to suggest as much. But the
truth of the matter may be more complicated.

Though feminists have turned her into “an icon
for the oppression of women scientists,” observes Nicholas Wade, a
science writer for
The New York Times class="text4">, there’s no evidence that Franklin herself—no
shrinking violet, and known to object vigorously to unfair
treatment—felt that she had been robbed by Watson and Crick.
“She became friends with both men afterwards,” Wade writes in class="text9">The Scientist (Apr. 7, 2003; see
also class="text4">), “and spent her last convalescence in Crick’s
house before her death, at age 37, from ovarian cancer.”

In their 1953 article in Nature class="text4"> announcing the discovery—which was accompanied by an
article by Franklin telling what she knew about DNA—Watson and Crick,
of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, said merely that they
had been “stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the
unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. F. Wilkins,
Dr. R.
E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King’s College, London.” When they accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine
(which they shared with Maurice Wilkins, the deputy director of
King’s College and Franklin’s colleague and rival there),
Watson and Crick made no mention of Franklin. And in his best-selling book class="text9">The Double Helix (1968),
Watson portrayed her in condescending terms. Watson also noted that
Wilkins, in highhanded fashion, had shown him Franklin’s x-ray
photograph 51, without Franklin’s knowledge. Crick, meanwhile,
obtained a King’s College report containing Franklin’s data.
Watson and Crick’s model of the double helix soon followed.

“Given her temper, it is likely that Franklin
would have been very angry if she had known the extent to which Watson and
Crick used her data,” maintains Lynne Os­man Elkin, a professor
of biological sciences at California State University, Hay­ward,
writing in
Physics Today "text4"> (March 2003).

But did Franklin not know? In an article published a
year after the famous 1953 article, Crick stated that “without
[Franklin’s] data, the formulation of our structure would have been
most unlikely, if not impossible.” Though they became friends, he and
Frank­lin, according to Crick, never discussed the subject during the
five years between the 1953 article and her death. Writes Wade: “It
was probably obvious to Franklin, as Crick believes, that the structure
rested on her data because no one else was producing any experimental
results. And both knew that Crick had understood what Franklin’s data
meant before she did.”

Franklin and the Watson-Crick team represented two
contrasting approaches to doing science, observes Harvard University
biologist R. C. Lewontin, writing in
The New
York Review of Books
(May 1, 2003). “For
Franklin, whom Watson characterizes as ‘obsessively
professional,’ the evidence would finally speak for itself. . . . For
Watson and Crick . . . data were useless without a prior concept. The facts
could serve only to suggest a range of models and as a check against
errors. They garnered their facts where they could.”

“We’re very famous because DNA is very
famous,” Watson tells
Scientific American class="text52"> (April 2003), referring to Crick and himself.
“If Rosalind had talked to Francis starting in 1951, shared her data
with him, she would have solved that structure. And then she would have
been the famous one.” But 50 years after the discovery, with two
biographies of her published and another in the works, Rosalind Franklin is
now almost as famous as the Nobel laureates. In their great collective
accomplishment, observes Lynne Osman Elkin, there’s “enough
glory” to go around.

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