DNA’s thwarted heroine

Dr Jen Martin remembers the life and legacy of a brilliant scientist, Rosalind Franklin.

By Dr Jen Martin

Dr Jen Martin remembers the life and legacy of a brilliant scientist, Rosalind Franklin.

We’ll never know whether Rosalind Franklin would have shared in the award of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the structure of DNA. This honour went to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. One condition of a Nobel Prize is that you have to be alive to receive it and Rosalind Franklin had died from ovarian cancer in 1958. She was only 37 years old.

There’s no debate about the fact Franklin packed a remarkable amount of high-quality scientific research into her short life. She is best known for her central – and at the time largely unrecognised – role in describing the structure of DNA, a discovery which paved the way for modern genetics.

It was her DNA work, carried out at King’s College in London between 1951 and 1953, that fueled the narrative for the feminist icon she has become. But Franklin made many other significant contributions to science.

She was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family. By all accounts, she knew at 16 she wanted to be a scientist; an aunt commented ‘Rosalind is alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, and invariably gets her sums right’. Franklin was sent to boarding school at the age of nine, and her education culminated in a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge. This was a notable achievement since at that time women were still excluded from being awarded undergraduate degrees at Cambridge.

Franklin undertook the research which was to become the subject of her PhD at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, describing the physical structures of coal and carbon. Next, she moved to Paris and learned the technique of X-Ray diffraction: using the way an X-Ray beam is scattered to decipher the minute three-dimensional structure of materials.

After her time at King’s College, Franklin did important work on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus at Birkbeck College, London. This laid the groundwork for research on the polio virus which her mentee Aaron Klug went on to finish after her death and publish in her memory.

Indeed, Franklin’s gravestone reads: ‘Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’. No mention of DNA.

In total, Franklin published 45 papers on coal, carbon, DNA and viruses. A good proportion of these were published in the most prestigious of scientific journals, Nature.

So what does hindsight tell us about Rosalind’s time at King’s College? The story goes that Maurice Wilkins was on leave when Franklin arrived at King’s. Upon his return, Wilkins assumed she had been employed as his assistant. Franklin, on the other hand, was under the impression she was there as an independent researcher who would be tackling the DNA question alone. Wilkins had been working on the problem for years, without great advance.

There’s no question that the now iconic image of DNA which Franklin and her student PhD student Raymond Gosling produced at King’s – known as Photograph 51 – was an important component of the discovery credited to Watson and Crick. This image shows clear evidence of the helical structure of DNA and decades later Watson conceded ‘the Franklin photograph was the key event’.

We know Wilkins showed this image to Watson without Franklin’s knowledge. We also know Watson and Crick had access to a summary of Franklin’s as-yet-unpublished work. Watson wrote ‘Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data’.

When they published their famous announcement in Nature in 1953, Watson and Crick didn’t directly acknowledge her work. In the same issue of Nature, Franklin and Gosling published their X-Ray findings separately, presented as ‘consistent’ with Watson and Crick’s model. Crick later admitted that Franklin was only ‘two steps away’ from understanding the correct structure of DNA herself. But incredibly, Franklin didn’t rate a mention in their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches.

How much truth is there in the claim that she was shunned because she was a woman? We certainly know Watson relegated her to the background in his 1968 best-seller The Double Helix. In what we would consider these days to border on libellous, Watson referred to Rosy (a nickname she hated) as someone who ‘had to go or be put in her place’. Watson also criticised Franklin for her appearance, and wrote, ‘The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab’.

Much has been said of Watson’s chauvinistic comments. We also know Franklin protested against women receiving lower pay than men and that she wasn’t promoted despite the fact her work clearly merited promotion. She has frequently been cast in the role of feminist martyr, cheated of the Nobel Prize as much by her misogynist colleagues as by her early death.

And while there’s no question that King’s College at the time wasn’t a welcoming place for women, this version of the story ignores an important fact. Irrespective of gender, Franklin and Wilkins clashed. Presumably Wilkins could have been one of her greatest champions, but instead, their working relationship was deeply strained.

Wilkins was quiet, reserved and hated arguments, while Franklin was outspoken, loved debate and was at times confrontational. Friends described her as impatient, bossy and seldom diplomatic. Franklin and Wilkins simply did not get on and they misunderstood each other’s role, presumably the fault of the lab head John Randall.

So although we’ll never know if she would have won a Nobel Prize had she lived beyond 37, we do know she was a brilliant, meticulous and hard-working scientist. She never expressed any frustration or bitterness about the way the double helix discovery played out; in fact, she later became good friends with Crick and his wife.

I doubt Franklin would have ever imagined she would become known as the thwarted heroine of DNA, or that the unhappiest two years of her career would be the best remembered. I imagine she’d be delighted to know how many girls she inspired to become scientists.

I do wonder how she’d react to knowing that not far from the River Thames, on the Waterloo Campus of King’s College London, stands the Franklin-Wilkins Building: her name entwined with that of the colleague she got along with worst. Would she have protested, or would she perhaps have been too engrossed in her work to care?

Dr Jen Martin is an award-winning educator and science communicator: she founded, designed and teaches The University of Melbourne’s highly acclaimed science communication program. She has a popular weekly radio segment Weird Science on 3RRR Breakfasters, and has also been a co-host of 3RRR’s popular Sunday science show, Einstein-a-go-go for more than a decade. Jen writes Shots of science; Full of flavour on her blog Espresso Science and also contributes to CSIRO’s Double Helix magazine. In her past life, Jen spent many years as a field biologist researching the social lives of possums among other zoological questions.

Photograph 51 plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 1 November to 14 December, 2019.

Published on 4 September 2018