By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. . . . There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. . . . Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. . . . The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab.
Ten years after Rosalind Franklin's death, James Watson described her thus in his best-selling book The Double Helix. When a friend of Franklin's tried to console her mother that at least Franklin would always be remembered, her mother's answer was, "I would rather she were forgotten than remembered in this way."
Watson's account omitted the fact that Franklin later became his friend, and — much more significantly — that without a good look at her unpublished data, he and Francis Crick might never have published their famous paper on the structure of DNA in 1953, nor won their Nobel Prizes in 1962. Franklin did not share the Nobel Prize; she died in 1958 at the age of 37.
Franklin was born in 1920, to an affluent Jewish family that strove for centuries to become more English than the English themselves. Described as an "alarmingly clever" girl, she amused herself with math problems and vowed to become a scientist. She won a scholarship to Cambridge, though her family refused the money and paid her tuition with its own funds. At Cambridge's Newnham College for Women, she earned the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in 1938; Cambridge didn't yet award such degrees to female students. She nevertheless earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1945. In 2009, Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary, and commissioned artist Quentin Blake to make a series of caricatures of the university's best and brightest. In the illustration of Watson and Crick, who were based at Cambridge when they disclosed the structure of DNA, Blake also paid tribute to Franklin.
After completing her Ph.D., Franklin did post-doctoral work in France and specialized in X-ray crystallography of carbonaceous solids. She eventually returned to England and took a position at King's College London. It was there that she and Ph.D. student Raymond Gosling took X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA strands that uncovered DNA's double-helical structure.
Franklin's 27 months at King's were among the least happy of her life. She missed France and despised the men's-club atmosphere that even forbade her to eat in the same dining room as her male colleagues. She butted heads especially with senior researcher Maurice Wilkins. In fact, Wilkins and Franklin were both misled (maybe out of sheer carelessness) by J.T. Randall, director of King's Biophysics Unit. Randall sent Franklin a letter telling her that she would be in charge of DNA research, all the while allowing Wilkins to think that DNA would remain his territory and that Franklin would assist him. Communication between Franklin and Wilkins all but disappeared, and Wilkins didn't learn of Randall's letter to Franklin until years after her death. While she was still very much alive, and planning to depart from King's, Wilkins wrote to Crick that he hoped the "smoke of witchcraft" would soon leave his eyes.
Perhaps to his later regret, Wilkins eventually showed one of Franklin's unpublished DNA photographs (the now-famous "Photograph 51") to Watson and Crick of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. In Watson's later account, one glimpse at the photograph enabled him to conclude that DNA was helical. Wilkins hoped to publish with Watson and Crick, but they scooped him as well as Franklin. They published their paper shortly afterwards with scant acknowledgment to Franklin or her assistant Gosling.
Historians differ on what exactly transpired between the Kings College and Cambridge teams. Although Watson himself gleefully recounted, "Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data," some historians have argued that his trial-and-error work with Crick contributed more to the breakthrough — along with a preliminary report of work at Kings, relayed to them by Crick's supervisor, Max Perutz. A never-published feature article in Time and a note from one of Franklin's colleagues to Crick have been cited as evidence that there was an agreed-upon cooperation between Cambridge and King's but not everybody agrees these items are convincing. What more people agree upon is that Franklin got less acknowledgment than she deserved.
Crick — who became a close friend of Franklin's before she died — remarked in the late 1970s, "First-class scientists take risks. Rosalind, it seems to me, was too cautious." That "caution" included pointing out to Watson and Crick that an early attempt they made at modeling DNA was wrong. And a recent discovery of some of Crick's correspondence, which had long been considered lost, suggests that Franklin's interpretation of DNA was quite logical to Crick himself. Franklin photographed DNA in two forms. The B (or "wet") form, pictured in Photograph 51, suggested a helical structure, but the A ("dry") form had a crystalline structure. The A form produced better diffraction data. In focusing on the A form in 1952, Franklin moved away from a helical interpretation, something Watson criticized her for in his book. After the famous DNA-structure paper was published, however, Crick wrote to Wilkins that he had only then seen the A form of DNA, and "I must say I am glad I didn't see it earlier, as it would have worried me considerably."
Some scientists familiar with the situation suspected that Franklin would have discerned the helical structure of DNA on her own in several more weeks. She had already authored a paper acknowledging the likelihood of a helical structure for DNA by the time she learned of Watson and Crick's model. But whereas Watson leapt from one hypothesis to another, Franklin proceeded with a more methodical approach, one endorsed by X-ray crystallography pioneer Dorothy Hodgkin. Taking X-ray photographs of DNA was hardly simple, and Franklin took the time to completely understand what she was doing. The A form of DNA was more suitable for her methodical approach.
Had Franklin known that Wilkins showed Photograph 51 to the Cambridge team, she might have been angry. Or she might not. As it was, she didn't realize there was any race to publish the structure of DNA, and she was simply happy to be leaving King's for the friendlier environment of J.D. Bernal's lab at Birkbeck College. There she did pioneering work with the tobacco mosaic virus (later asked to construct models for the 1958 World's Fair) and started studying polio — then a communicable disease that caused disability and death across the world. Watson and Crick, meanwhile, had to wait years before the significance of their study struck a note with the public.
Franklin's friends and family pointed out that Watson didn't know her well, or chose to ignore much of what he did know when he wrote The Double Helix. In fact, she was known for her fashion sense and vivacious personality — in the right circles. And contrary to what Watson's book implied, she was perfectly capable of interpreting her DNA photographs, not just taking them. Yet Franklin was no saint. She had a short temper, she often seemed unfriendly to those who didn't know her, and her affluent background may have affected her opinions of her less-wealthy colleagues more than she realized.
In Franklin's day, photographing DNA could take up to 100 hours of radiation exposure, and in the years she worked with X-ray equipment, she rarely took precautions to protect herself from radiation. In fact, few scientists at the time did, but Franklin was especially unlucky. From excessive radiation or other causes, she developed ovarian cancer in her mid-30s. Of all the players in the discovery of DNA, she alone was unable to defend herself from Watson's portrayal, which wasn't particularly kind to anyone. In a perverse sense, however, Watson did Franklin a favor with his "Rosy" caricature; had he not painted Franklin as a witch, she might have been more easily forgotten. As it turned out, Watson timed his little book rather unwisely; when he published it, in 1968, the feminist movement was well underway, and Franklin became an icon.
Watson later admitted — in a book where he had an editor — that if Franklin had lived long enough, she might well have received her own Nobel Prize, perhaps sharing the Chemistry Award with Wilkins. On the occasions where he had to function without an editor, Watson didn't do so well. He eventually distinguished himself for 21st-century racism matching his 1960s sexism. In 2007, he claimed without scientific evidence, that testing shows people of African ancestry to be less intelligent than those with European ancestry, and that "people who have to deal with black employees" know they are less intelligent than whites. Fellow scientists were pretty appalled, and in 2014, Watson sold his Nobel medal, claiming he needed to make up for income lost to being considered a "nonperson." Given an opportunity to retract or at least soften his earlier remarks in a PBS special in 2019, Watson doubled down. Within days, Cold Spring Harbor completely severed its relationship with him.
As for Franklin, there was more to her biography than her work at King's. In her short life, she authored or co-authored 37 scientific papers, and besides her contribution to the study of DNA, she won international respect for her work on carbonaceous solids and virology. In July 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Nature editorial commemorated the centenary of her Franklin's birth. The authors pointed out a link between Franklin's research and the present day's research of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, and remarked that her studies of coal's porosity "indirectly aided in the design of the personal protective equipment of her day" in World War II gas masks.
Reflecting on the DNA research of the early 1950s, science historian Philip Ball criticizes Franklin's risk aversion while completely understanding it.
Watson, Crick and Pauling felt confident enough to foul up. All three committed howlers in trying to get the prize — Pauling's triple helix, published in early 1953, contained elementary errors. . . . For a scientist to thrive, there must be the freedom to fail. In Franklin's time, it is not surprising that a female scientist would think that she could ill afford that luxury. I am not at all sure that even a young Watson and Crick today could so freely take the risks they did.
On July 25, 2013, Google commemorated Franklin's 93rd birthday with a Google Doodle, featuring her picture (complete with a dainty strand of pearls), a double helix, and a rendition of her famous Photo 51.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated April 26, 2023