Friday, May 27, 2011

Rosalind Franklin and the DNA discovery

Ladies and gents, I present to you, Rosalind Franklin:

This lady here is a british biophysicist, most known for her work in x-ray crystallography. She was a specialist in the field, and had successfully obtained what was qualified by another scientist, J. D. Bernal, as "amongst the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken".

I'm not discussing Franklin only because she was a good at x-rays, though in itself it's quite an achievement. Franklin had a great deal to do with the discovery of DNA structure, because she managed to take this picture:

Photograph 51
This, to a crystallograph, reads as "double helix". Apparently it's super obvious. I don't know. I'm no crystallograph.

What I do know was that this picture, one of the key elements leading to the discovery of DNA structure by Crick and Watson, was taken by Franklin's colleague and showed it, without her permission, to Crick and Watson.

They built their model based on this x-ray photograph, in addition to everything else they knew. Most think they couldn't have done it without Franklin's photo -- at least not so fast, which means they might not have been the first.

Now, not to remove the credit from Watson and Crick. They put together many pieces of a complex puzzle and came out with the right answer. That's an incredible achievement.

When they published their structure in 1953, however, the only mention of Franklin's work was as a footnote. Ten years later, Watson published a memoir recounting his discovery of DNA structure, The Double Helix. He discredited Rosalind Franklin on every occasion, calling her 'Rosy' and burying her contributions under allegations that she couldn't interpret her own data.

Crick, Watson and Wilkins received a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA and other nucleid acids.

Franklin died in 1958, at 37, due to the consequence of x-ray exposure (turns out, x-rays are like radium in this regard).

The rules of Nobel Prizes forbid posthumous nominations. Her name isn't on it, and will never be.

Thankfully, her story is becoming more widely known, and she is increasingly frequently included in the tales behind the discovery of DNA structure, perhaps one of the biggest scientific discovery of our times.


  1. > (turns out, x-rays are like radium in this regard).

    Great post, Claudie. But x-rays are not 'like' radium. Radium is an element. "X-rays" is electromagnetic radiation and elements like radium are used to create it.

    Cheers --- Larry

  2. Larry - I think she's referring to the comic she posted about earlier this week where zombie Marie Curie tells the young science girl to "stay away from radium, turns out it kills you." I think she is saying that it is "like radium in this regard" in reference to that comic.

    Claudie- I love this post and I'm glad you're doing more like it. The way women have been treated in science historically is really sad. It is important to remember the contributions they've made and how little recognition they have received. I think it is also important to see that despite not getting the recognition they deserved, they continued to work hard and contribute. There is a beautiful kind of dedication there that we can all learn from.

  3. That really chaps my ass! But with people like you writing about her story will get it out there for public consumption. I personally would love to read a story where a woman overcomes obstacles posthumously through other women. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love the idea of this series of blogs and I am thrilled you're helping spread the word. Thanks for the quick history lesson on a Friday morning!

  5. Larry: Sommer has it, I was referencing to the comic I mentionned last week. Reading the post, I admit it's not clear. A good thing Blogger allows for edits. ;)

    Sommer: There's a lot of scientists (not just women) that get forgotten through history. They had it far worse, however, because not only was it incredibly hard for them to enter universities, learn the science and do the research, but their conclusions and discoveries were often ignored on top of that.

    Laura: "That really chaps my ass!" is an expression I will HAVE to reuse. XD I'm glad one of my teachers decided to take class time and tell us this story. Franklin deserves this recognition.

    Tricia: I do what I can. :)

  6. I'm thinking science is a bit of an "open source" field where there's lots of cooperation between scientists (and that's a lot of how science works, people build on one another's findings), but then passing along a photo without permission, and then not crediting it (I've probably seen THAT photo before, or if not, certainly one just like it), are Bad Things. But it's good to read this, it seems a lot of people think Marie Curie was the only woman scientist who ever lived.

    I recently read a book on math history, "Journey through Genius" that I found fascinating (seriously!). For one thing it describes how Newton came up with those fast-converging infinite series for Pi that I'd always seen in the CRC Math Tables handbooks but never knew where they came from. If there's one fault, it has FOUR PAGES (I counted) on the hard personal life of the man who solved the cubic equation, solely to say that one doesn't have to live a nice, upper-class life to make a significant contribution to math. But I think that's the only four consecutive pages with no math content in the whole book. What brings it up is a woman who made some mathematics advance who took her work to some famous mathematician who was amazed at her new finding, and especially astounded that it was done by a woman. I don't know if he was astounded that a woman was capable of doing the work at all, or that she managed to learn areas of math that were closed to women (IIRC her father was a professor and she learned by reading the books in his personal library), but regardless, at least he acknowledged her work! The book is so good I think that's how math should be taught, with the history of each discovery included.

    And for what it's worth, I have never had any interest in history whatsoever, EXCEPT when it involves math, science or technology. Growing up I wanted to become a scientist but I only became an engineer, but still that's almost as good.

  7. Ben: Now I have to get my hands on this book. I once read what was a thriller based on mathematical history. The Parrot's Theorem was the name (well, it's the direct transalation from the French title). Sadly, I can't recall who wrote it. It was fascinating.

    I agree on you with the history of each discovery. This is why I created this series: because there is a story behind nearly every discovery, and it makes them so much more interesting.

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