Franklin's Contribution to DNA Helix Discovery Was More Profound Than We Thought

This week marks the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, which led to the revelation that the genetic material that encodes all life takes the shape of two twisted strands connected by chemical threads.

Three back-to-back articles on the structure of DNA were written by several now-famous household names. Rosalind Franklin, a scientist, was one of them. Rosalind Franklin passed away from ovarian cancer shortly after, denying her the opportunity to enjoy her accomplishments or see them properly acknowledged.

Instead, James Watson and Francis Crick would later publish best-selling books, share the Nobel Prize with Maurice Wilkins, and give extensive interviews about how they used information from the now-famous photograph known as Photograph 51 to piece together the structure of DNA.

The dispersion of fuzzy dots in the image was created by X-rays that were refracted by the molecular structure of DNA. The image was taken by Raymond Gosling, a pupil Wilkins temporarily gave the chemist, and it wasn't much without Franklin's professional analysis.

The extent to which Franklin's skilled eye influenced the course of discovery has been up for debate ever since.

Now, two scientists researching Watson and Crick's histories have found further information concerning Franklin's role in the discovery of DNA's double helix in a forgotten letter and an unreleased news story from the 1950s.

"Together, these documents suggest a different account of the discovery of the double helix," write naturalist Matthew Cobb and medical historian Nathaniel Comfort in a commentary commemorating the anniversary of the 1953 Nature publications. Franklin well understood how DNA is structured. She contributed equally to finding a solution.

Cobb and Comfort combed through a collection of Franklin's notes to piece together her thoughts, illustrating how the former Marie Curie student created many more works than the one for which she is most known.

Franklin measured her X-ray diffraction pictures carefully and recorded her findings in an informal report. When the observations reached Watson and Crick, they utilized them to support their theoretical model of DNA without getting their consent.

Franklin had earlier said in her 1951 lecture notes that the molecule is a "big helix with several chains, phosphates on outside, phosphate-phosphate interhelical bonds, disrupted by water," a seminar Watson attended and carelessly ignored.

Cobb and Comfort use the recently discovered documents to make a somewhat different case than Watson and Crick, who undoubtedly demonstrated a casual disdain for other people's labor by using facts to support their beliefs about the structure of DNA and only acknowledging contributions after the fact.

Franklin wasn't some naive outsider taking the easy way out. Two teams that often cross-checked their work, to use a charitable interpretation, were responsible for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

In an unpublished story she authored with Franklin, writer Joan Bruce stated, "They linked up, occasionally verifying each other's work or grappling with a shared issue."

Cobb and Comfort's revision of the story makes an effort to portray Franklin as "an equal member of a quartet who solved the double helix," but it also illustrates what occurs when one person's popular account of the facts takes momentum while specifics from technical journals are left to stalemate.

In their best-selling 1968 book, The Double Helix, Cobb and Comfort claim that Watson twisted reality by portraying the day he first viewed Photograph 51 as a typical "eureka moment" that readers could relate to.

Cobb and Comfort believe that this narrative—that Watson could see at a glance what Franklin had missed for months—is frequently "unwittingly" supported by Franklin's supporters and distorts Franklin's accomplishments. It appears that Franklin, a knowledgeable scientist, was unable to comprehend his own data, in contrast to him, a rookie crystallographer, who understood it right away.

Cobb and Comfort claim that in a 1954 study, Watson and Crick made an attempt to "set the record straight" by admitting that "the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible," in the absence of Franklin's evidence. It's impossible to tell if it reads as a quick admission of guilt or as praise for their peer's diligence; possibly both are true.

Cobb and Comfort contend that Franklin was "beaten to the answer" of DNA's fascinating double helix for a few reasons that reflect the prejudice she encountered as a woman in science, despite the fact that history shows Franklin as an equal contribution to our understanding of DNA.

Franklin worked "on her own without a peer with whom to exchange ideas" outside her graduate student. She was also left out of the casual conversations in which Watson and Crick participated.

Before developing any theories of how DNA fits together, Franklin insisted on gathering and thoroughly studying her X-ray diffraction data. Her and Gosling's 1953 work was only included in Nature with the other two after Franklin formally requested its publication.

Of course, it still holds that Wilkins, without Franklin's knowledge or consent, sent Watson the legendary Photograph 51, a very sharp photograph of DNA as it appears inside aqueous cells.

Cobb and Comfort argue that Franklin should be remembered as a bright scientist in her own right who condensed two lifetimes' worth of knowledge into a single work, rather than as someone who overlooked the importance of her X-ray crystallographic photos.

Cobb and Comfort write, "Getting Franklin's story right is crucial because she has become a role model for women entering science." She was up against more subtle kinds of sexism inherent in science, some of which are still present now, in addition to the overt ones of the time.

The commentary was published in Nature.