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DNA’s Dark Lady (video)
April 22, 2003

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Interviewees: Brenda Maddox, Franklin biographer; Lynne Elkin, Franklin scholar.

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NOVA: Secret of Photo 51

50 Years of DNA: From Double Helix to Health
A Celebration of the Genome

Brenda Maddox interview on NPR

This week, scientists and historians worldwide are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

But, as this ScienCentral News video reports, not everyone involved with that discovery got the credit they deserved.

A Woman Unrecognized

When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953, they couldn’t possibly imagine that scientists would be finished sequencing the human genome only 50 years later. Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the revelation that this molecule of inheritance—often called the “secret of life”—was shaped like a twisting ladder, or double helix. They are associated with this discovery in the worlds of science and history, but they weren’t the only people who contributed to it.

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and physicist working at Kings College in London in the early ‘50s. “She was known for being an absolutely brilliant experimentalist, having ‘golden hands’,” says Lynne Osman Elkin, a professor of biological sciences at California State University-Hayward, who published an article on Franklin in Physics Today’s March 2003 issue. “She would execute experiments herself. She didn’t hand off things to other people to do. She was very, very dedicated. She loved science.”

Franklin figured out how to get DNA to form into crystals, and then took pictures of them using x-rays. Her pictures were considered the best of their time. One of them, called Photo 51, revealed the shape of an “x.” To a trained scientific mind, that “x” looks like a helix. Armed with that information, Watson and Crick, working in Cambridge, England, were then able to discover that DNA was, in fact, a double helix. “[Franklin] is the person who did the experimental work that was used to figure out the structure of DNA,” says Elkin. “Watson and Crick figured out the final steps of it, but she figured out the beginning steps and they had access to her data.” Her photos also revealed measurements that Watson and Crick used to build their model, such as the distance between the “steps” on the twisting ladder that is DNA.

But Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick had even seen Photo 51. “It reached them by a very irregular route,” explains Brenda Maddox, the author of Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, which was published last fall. “Let me hasten to say, they did not steal it. They just came across it.” The details are sketchy, but Maurice Wilkins, the third recipient of the Nobel in 1962 and a former co-worker of Franklin’s, did show Watson the photo.

Photo 51
image: Jeremey Norman
In 1958, Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. Her death came four years before the ceremony at which Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel. “It is not given posthumously,” explains Maddox, “so by the time they were eligible and they came to be considered, she was dead. That is the real reason she did not get the prize.” But at the ceremony, neither Watson nor Crick thanked Rosalind Franklin for making their discovery possible, and she died without knowing how prominent her role was in that discovery.

“In terms of the initial discovery of DNA, it was definitely Watson and Crick using her data,” says Elkin. “My personal opinion is that it should be the ‘Watson-Crick-Franklin structure,’ because they did not have a structure without Franklin’s data.”

A Man Reconsiders

In his 1968 book, The Double Helix, Watson disparaged Franklin; she did not sound like the competent scientist her colleagues remembered, a woman whose other scientific work, both before and after her DNA work, earned her much recognition from the scientific community. “She came out very badly caricatured in James Watson’s book,” says Maddox, “in which she’s the terrible ‘Rosie,’” who hoarded her data and wouldn’t let the men see it, and was intemperate and unattractive. It’s long been realized that that was an unfair picture of her. She is now recognized as a co-discoverer of the double helix.”

In his new book, DNA: The Secret of Life, which came out April 1st, Watson reflects on the 50 years since he and Crick revealed the secret to DNA’s structure, and says that he now believes Franklin deserved her own Nobel Prize.

by Karen Lurie

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