The field of science can be cruel. To the victor go the spoils and many times the lesser names get left behind. We remember the Darwins and forget the Wallaces.
Most anyone in biology can tell you that DNA’s structure was discovered by a pair of scientists named James Watson and Francis Crick. By the end of World War II, scientists around the world understood that genetic information was carried along by something known as deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, but nobody knew what the molecule really looked like. The famous double helix had not been discovered yet. The story goes that one day, the two scientists stumbled into the Eagle pub in Cambridge and Crick, giddy on scientific euphoria, announced, “We have found the secret of life.”
And they had. In a 1953 issue of Nature, Watson and Crick printed the now famous “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids”, a paper that would earn the pair a Nobel prize.
But this simple story ignores a name that some feel deserves equal credit, one Rosalind Elsie Franklin. At the time of Watson and Crick’s work, Franklin was a graduate student at King’s College London. She was studying the process known as x-ray crystallography, a complicated process wherein the structure of proteins is teased out of x-ray photographs. One of the proteins she was working on happened to be DNA. Apparently her advisor, Maurice Wilkins, had a strong dislike for the girl and, without her knowledge or consent, presented the visiting Watson and Crick with her imagery, which happened to be exactly the data they needed to confirm their suspicions. It was, “the data we actually used,” said Crick.
Watson and Crick’s paper barely hinted at her involvement, even though early drafts of Franklin’s own papers showed she was well on the way to discovering the double helix herself. The nature of this slight is contentious. Some claim Watson and Crick’s paper was near-plagiarism, others say the pair of scientists acted in good faith. It’s even been suggested that her snub was outright misogyny.
I personally stand with the view that the slight was as much an accident as anything else. There were a number of different competing teams working on this discovery and everyone had their flaws. Watson and Crick’s egos were legendary and both Franklin and her superiors could be bullheaded and secretive. In the end, everyone did get their say in the same magazine, it was simply Watson and Crick who said their piece first.
Still, it is worth remembering the biophysicist did do brilliant work and her data was integral to our understanding of genetics. There is a growing trend in the scientific community to say the discoverers of DNA were Watson, Crick, and Franklin, all in one breath. Perhaps not a bad one.
Franklin would go on to work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses, where she made foundational contributions. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. She was 37.