The Dark Lady of DNA

For many decades following the 1950s, biology classes across the United States and the world drilled two names into the heads of students in relation to unraveling the “secret of life.” Which brilliant scientists unlocked the famous double helix of deoxyribonucleic acids – aka DNA – the coding chains of life on Earth? The answer is one of Trivia’s favorite duos: Watson and Crick.

James Watson and Francis Crick developed a model in 1953 for the complicated shape of perhaps the most important molecule in the known universe. For their monumental discovery, the tandem earned the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, cementing their names into scientific lore.

As is often the case, this tidy tidbit is hardly the whole tale. Take, for instance, the fact that the 1962 Nobel went not just to Watson and Crick but also to a person named Maurice Wilkins. Why is the DNA query not answerable with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, then? Was Wilkins shorted in the history books?

To resolve this question, we first need to meet the Dark Lady of DNA, a brilliant scientist who makes the Wilkins oversight look like molecular potatoes.

Rosalind Franklin in Paris - photo by Vittorio Luzzati/CSHL

Rosalind Elsie Franklin joined humanity on 25 July 1920 in London, the daughter of affluent, influential, and intellectual Jewish parents. Her father taught at a London college; her uncle was Britain’s Home Secretary and the first practicing Jew to sit on the nation’s Cabinet; an aunt and an uncle were active members of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. Her family aided in the settlement of Jewish refugees during World War II, personally housing two children from the Kindertransport.

As a child, Rosalind distinguished herself as a remarkable student and intellect. She employed her free time with the delight of arithmetic. By age 11, she had entered one of the few girls’ schools of the era that instructed physics and chemistry. She outperformed her classmates in nearly every subject, especially science and foreign languages. Her lone shortcoming, it seemed, arrived in music, where she had an early brush with greatness. The St. Paul’s Girls’ School director was Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets, who wondered if Rosalind had hearing problems or tonsilitis. Upon graduation, she earned a scholarship to university. Her father urged her to give the money to a refugee student who might need assistance more than she did.

Franklin moved to Cambridge, where she studied chemistry. She continued research in chemistry at Cambridge after graduation, but the onset of World War II upended many normalities in the United Kingdom. The National Service Acts required all women aged 20 to 30 to be “called up” to help their nation. To meet the requirements of the law, Rosalind went to work at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. Though it might have seemed rather unlikely at the time, her experiments with coal during the war effort would lead her toward a path of scientific immortality.

Rosalind Franklin with microscope in 1955 - Laboratory of Molecular Biology

At BCURA, Franklin researched the porosity of coal. She investigated the interplay between molecules and space, which led to breakthroughs in coal as fuel, as well as applications for gas masks.

After the war, she asked a friend in Paris about job openings for “a physical chemist who knows very little physical chemistry, but quite a lot about the holes in coal.” This inquiry led to a position at Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’État under Jacques Mering, who happened to be an X-ray crystallographer. Mering had pushed X-ray technology past regular crystals into the realm of amorphous substances, such as rayon. Or coal. Franklin combined her knowledge of coal with a new-found talent for X-ray crystallography to make discoveries in the chemistry of carbon, particularly graphite. Crystallography, also known as X-ray diffraction, uses the magic of these special light beams to study the molecular structure of nearly any physical object. By the time Franklin returned to London, she had become perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the structure of carbon and a wizard with X-ray diffraction.

She landed at King’s College London under the wing of John Randall, a biophysicist who had helped the Allies win World War II with his work on magnetrons and radar. There, Randall had begun to tinker with the big mystery of the era: DNA. At the time, scientists had learned a decent amount about DNA – it had been discovered all the way back in 1869! – but they knew precious little about its shape and constitution. Fortunately for Randall and the rest of the world, King’s College London had just managed to nab the world’s most talented X-ray crystallographer.

The famous Photo 51 by Raymond Gosling and Rosalind Franklin

Randall had assigned Franklin to work with a man named – you guessed it – Maurice Wilkins, who had been attempting to solve the DNA conundrum with X-ray diffraction. However, Wilkins lacked Franklin’s knack with the medium. She quickly tuned the instruments at King’s College and had a go at DNA.

The first fork in the road that led to Watson and Crick garnering all the plaudits arrived because of diverging personalities. Wilkins was timid and calculating; Franklin was intense and direct. The two did not get on well, which ultimately led to Randall splitting the pair. This arrangement strangely worked because Franklin had discovered that the structure of DNA changed depending on how much water the molecule encountered. Franklin named the structures “crystalline” and “wet.” DNA-A appeared more like traditional crystals and occurred when the molecules interacted with less water; conversely, DNA-B seemed mushier. Franklin focused on A, while Wilkins worked with B. Initially, Franklin believed she got the good end of the bargain, as the “crystalline” form lent itself to X-ray diffraction, while DNA-B resisted the technology. In the end, it would be DNA-B that yielded results, though, as DNA in cells is surrounded by water.

Still, DNA-B’s stubbornness could not thwart Franklin, She and the team at King’s College eventually learned a great deal about both forms and DNA in general. From their experimentation, she discerned that DNA was likely helical and even learned precise measurements about some of the constituent components. In 1952, Franklin’s graduate student, Raymond Gosling, managed to snap a diffraction image of DNA-B that would famously become known as Photo 51. This image and the data Franklin teased from X-ray diffraction were about to lead to a monumental breakthrough.

Cartoon explanation of how Photo 51 captured the double helix structure of DNA - graphic by Dr. Emily Willoughby

Just not for Rosalind Franklin.

Fork number two materialized because of another facet of Franklin’s personality. Despite her intensity and propensity for scientific propulsion, she was inherently not a theoretician. To Franklin, models followed verifiable facts, not vice versa. Applied to DNA, Franklin had some guesses about its structure – many of which turned out to be true – based on the things she had witnessed in the X-ray imagery. However, she was not interested in devising a model first, only to prove or disprove its veracity after the fact.

Two men at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge were Franklin’s opposites. They yearned to find the model that would illustrate DNA’s structure, even if they didn’t yet have all the pieces of the puzzle to prove they were right. Once again, you’ve likely deduced the identities of these scientists: James Watson and Francis Crick. They tried over and over again to unlock the muddied makeup of DNA theoretically with little success.

Fork number three arrived at this point. Wilkins, friends with Watson and Crick, showed the duo Photo 51, while an academic in charge forwarded a copy of the details Franklin had discovered in her work. These exchanges happened without the knowledge of Franklin. She was in the process of moving to another university because she was personally unhappy at King’s College. Despite the seemingly underhanded sharing of information, evidence exists that shows Franklin might not have minded. The teams had collaborated before, sharing information to help solve a common mystery. Still, Franklin was unaware of the transfer, which was, to say the least, a bit ethically murky.

When Watson and Crick saw the details that Franklin and her team had sussed out of DNA, they were off to the races. Some science historians hesitate to attribute a “eureka” moment to the situation, but it is clear that Franklin’s contributions greatly aided the breakthrough made by Watson and Crick in 1953.

Wilkins, Watson, and Crick receive the Nobel Prize in 1962 - photo from King's College London Archives

Watson and Crick labored over the model of DNA’s double-helix structure for many weeks. With knowledge gained from the scientists at King’s College, they finally stumbled upon the correct mathematical, physical layout. It was a huge scientific achievement.

Fork in the road number four arises when the discovery was presented to the world. In a trio of articles in Nature, each segment of the foursome authored a groundbreaking piece. Watson and Crick’s model preceded papers by Wilkins and Franklin. Those in the world of DNA realize each had played a vital role in unlocking DNA’s structure. However, the ordering of the papers and the lackluster attribution to Franklin’s data by Watson and Crick led many to perceive her discoveries about DNA to have happened after the model was developed. The narrative emerged that her data did not precede the model but arrived later to prove its accuracy. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins did little to dissuade this viewpoint.

For her part, Franklin did not raise a ruckus at the time because she did not feel slighted. No awards had been presented. The people who knew better understood her role. She didn’t even know if she believed the Watson and Crick model was 100% accurate yet. She probably even realized she could not have beaten Watson and Crick to a model precisely because she did not believe in model-first science. Rosalind moved to a new university and shifted her focus to studying viruses and their component RNA, a field in which she made quick progress.

Rosalind Franklin - Elliott & Fry and the National Portrait Gallery

Just as Franklin began to make inroads in the study of viruses, health problems arose. In one of the great scientific tragedies, she developed ovarian cancer in 1956 and died two years later on 16 April 1958. She was just 37 years old. What this major mind could have accomplished in the coming decades is tough to contemplate.

Fast forward four years after her early passing. The awareness of the importance of DNA in genetics had only grown, which led the Nobel committee to bestow the 1962 award to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Today, the committee follows a rule not to award prizes posthumously; however, at the time, they could have included Franklin in the quartet. Instead, the three men received the plaudits. Two of them have remained fodder for students around the world. Franklin’s role fell into obscurity for many years.

In 2002, biographer Brenda Maddox penned Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. In the book, she uncovered the critical importance of Franklin’s work on DNA and wondered why she had languished in the darkness for so long. Over the decades, Watson and Crick had slowly acknowledged the aid they received from Franklin. Watson later suggested that he and Crick might ideally have won the Physiology or Medicine award, while Franklin and Wilkins should have taken home the Chemistry award. Of course, it’s easy to say these things long after the fact. Why couldn’t they have acknowledged her work while she was alive and at the time of the discoveries?

Maddox and many others have focused on the misogyny that riddled the scientific community and the world at large in the middle of the 20th century. Instances of the headwinds faced by Franklin because she was a woman are rampant. Many men of the time – and, of course, still today – found it hard to recognize an intellectual equal or superior in a woman. Was the general omission of Franklin in the annals of DNA’s unraveling a result of sexism or were the forks in the road merely innocent coincidence? Did Watson and Crick cite poorly because they were caught up in winning a race or because they did not like the source of their information? Historians argue both sides. Perhaps both sides are true.

Despite the lack of a Nobel Prize and the fact that her name does not show up next to Watson and Crick in trivia contests, historians have gone to great lengths to right the omission of Franklin in the past several decades. Today, especially among academics, her achievements are celebrated. Her name adorns labs, colleges, asteroids, and even currency.

Her scientific exploits alone would easily qualify her for the Woman Crush Wednesday Hall of Fame at The Mountains Are Calling Headquarters, but we have an additional reason to laud her here. Franklin loved the outdoors, particularly the mountains. She spent much of her travel time trekking across the great peaks of Europe, from the French Alps to crags in Norway to the Julian Alps in Italy and Slovenia.

May her spirit continue to inspire scientists and explorers alike!

Franklin posing in front of a famous rock formation at Mount Prisojnik in Slovenia - photo likely by Dušan Hadži
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