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Who invented DNA?

The more I read of Rosalind Franklin, the more convinced I am that ambition and generosity go hand-in-hand in academic life. It may seem paradoxical that in a profession that relies (and survives) on originality of ideas, there are scholars who willingly share what they know, at any stage of their own research. Collaboration can lead to discovery, as American and Canadian scientists have discovered in their mutual effort to decode SARS.

Over at Stingy Kids, Adriana reveals the history of Rosalind Franklin, who should be remembered as the co-discoverer of DNA, but isn't.


Rosalind Franklin isn't remembered as a co-discoveror of DNA because James Watson is an egregious, unredeemable dick.

Please note that I say that while Watson is actually still alive and can, if he so wishes, contest the statement.

Rosalind Franklin - a woman, AND Maurice Wilkins, a New Zealander - worked together to elucidate the structure of a nucleic protein that had been detected from histolgical stains since the early 1900's. They used x-ray crystallography and determined that there were phosphate groups, deoxyribose sugar and an nucleic acids. Their work was pioneering in this respect to determine the strcutre of DNA. However, it was Watson and Crick who produced the first working MODEL of the double helix based on Franklin and Wilkins' x-ray crystallography.Two papers were published, one caught the world's attention.

Wilkins eventually did get a Nobel prize with Watson and Crick. Dr Franklin died three years prior to being able to receive the award (can they be awarded posthumously??).

Yes, there are a disproportionate number of women and Antipodean scientists who find themselves as technicians and omitted from authorship or recognition (been there!). We are steadily increasing our number in the ranks of postgraduates and priciple researchers.

We all need to remember that scientists are also human, can show both incredible strength and terrible weaknesses .

It's true that both Franklin and Wilkins were using x-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA but they were hardly collaborators. Their professional relationship was strained from the onset by a significant misunderstanding: Wilkins assumed that Franklin had been hired to work as his assistant and was hardly pleased to find out that, in fact, Franklin had been assigned her own lab space and assistant. Though they were working on the same general project, they did not enjoy the easy collaboration shared by Watson and Crick. Through Wilkins, in part, Watson and Crick were privy to Franklin's research.

To this day, Watson argues that Franklin was wrong in assuming that the structure of DNA could be determined by x-ray crystallography alone; however, he himself relied on this data to build his model. He also brought different versions of the model to Franklin for approval and would rebuild according to her criticism.

To his credit, Wilkins did refer to Franklin's research in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but Waston and Crick did not.

Of course, scientists have the strengths and weaknesses of any human being but the need to revise this biased history cannot be detained on this general argument alone.

Watson is famously a prick; I get the impression from his writings about the DNA discovery story (outside of the ego-vehicle The Double Helix) that he is sorry for the way he treated Franklin, but unable to bring himself to admit wrongdoing. I am surprised that Crick didn't mention Franklin, as he is equally famously even-handed and generous; did Crick even speak at the acceptance?

In my field (mol biol) it is pretty generally accepted that either team could have made the final breakthrough but the really crucial data was the crystallography, and that Franklin was shafted horribly. I have not heard a different view from a single colleague.

P.S. Adrienne, what's this about Aus/NZ scientists being mistreated in overseas labs? I know or know of a couple of dozen, none of whom have any such cause for complaint. I'm post-doc'ing in Portland right now, and having a ball.

Oops, I should make that clearer: either team could have come up with the answer, because Watson/Crick were going to get crystallographic data eventually (it was an obvious avenue to explore). It was Franklin's painstaking technical excellence (and Wilkins' treachery) that provided them with the crucial data much earlier than otherwise would have been the case.

Also, I disagree with Watson: I think that Franklin would have come up with an accurate structure on her own, because she knew what everyone else, including Watson and Crick, knew about DNA -- but she had the data.

actually, watson and crick were racing against time and, more specifically, against linus pauling, an american structural chemist who was very close to figuring out DNA's double-helical structure. what he lacked, it seems, was a good x-ray image of DNA.

sennoma, i'm glad you're enjoying academic life in portland but how would someone from NZ/Aus have experienced UK academia in the 50s?

The only urgency is -- or rather, should IMO be -- your own drive to discover. Sadly, racing against other researchers is all too common. I had forgotten about Pauling -- you are right, he could have solved it every bit as fast if he'd been shown Franklin's data. I wonder how much Franklin knew of Pauling's work on the topic; why did she not collaborate with him? (I can understand her not wanting to work with colleagues at King's, who by all accounts treated her very badly indeed.)

how would someone from NZ/Aus have experienced UK academia in the 50s?

I took adrienne's comment to be present-tense, not related to Wilkins. If Wilkins felt himself excluded, why did he sneak the data to Watson/Crick? Trying to ingratiate himself, perhaps?

wilkins was a good friend of francis crick. i speculate that his resentment of franklin and her position at king's set the stage for his treachery.

in my last comment i link to an OSU site on linus pauling and the race for DNA. it explains in some detail pauling's relationship with King's College and its researchers. it's an incredible story, told from pauling's perspective.

In a deliberate attempt to get away from getting into nasty and personal bunfights, which is exactly what happened in male dominated, postwar, rule Brittania, 50's era Cambridge and Kings ..and tends to happen all too frequently in academia...

...the conflicting accounts surrounding this debate show that there were severe personality conflicts and a poorly defined work contract.. and that should have been resolved by the HOD and all laboratory staff.

On one hand, people paint Wilkins as a woman-hating, fame-loving thief, the other is a resolute anti-war, anti-nuclear compaigner who quit physics after becoming involved in the Manhatten project to take on life sciences for peace.One Kings collegue interviewed on this week on NZ national radio even stated that Wilkins was a shy man who did not want to share the prize with Watson and Crick.

This collegue (I forgot to note his name, but can get it on Monday) also discussed at length this fall-out between Franklin and Wilkins with sad regret.. there were inreconcillable differences between them. Both worked on x-ray crystallography, had developed helical models and, given 6 months, would have had the structure. He also agreed that she should have also got a Nobel prize. However, the Nobel committee only awarded a maximum of 3 people per prize. To get around this, he suggested that the prize could have been split over two categories.. say medicine and chemistry or chemistry and physics.

Now, what do you do with so many conflicting reports .. especially when you want to keep students and yourself interested in science? And when you understand how both wonderful, incredibly supportive..and incredibly, totally fucked up academia can be!!! And hell, what is a Nobel prize worth when Jimmy Carter wins one for PEACE?!!

I present to the students the fact that there were four researchers. I use Franklin as an example of a remarkable woman of science in a difficult era. Antipodean researchers who "make it big overseas" are also held up as examples..although it does go overboard at times; Wilkins left NZ at age 6.

and, yes.. Aus/NZ researchers will aim to head to big USA/UK labs. Ooodles of us.. if not all of us! And we do well. In fact, heading OS is generally mandatory. But.....things are still not totally fine! My friend had the unfortunante experience of going to a lab in NY city. She was promised a postdoc, she got a miserable RA position instead and she bailed after 9 months of hard work and no credit. Sounds familiar.........?

what is a Nobel prize worth when Jimmy Carter wins one for PEACE?!!

Perhaps you mean Henry Kissinger? Pres. Carter's prize was well deserved.

She was promised a postdoc, she got a miserable RA position instead and she bailed after 9 months of hard work and no credit. Sounds familiar.........?

Nope, neither to Franklin's mistreatment nor to any contemporary experience I've ever heard of. Which only goes to show that the plural of anecdote is not data.

Adriana, thanks for the Pauling link, I shall read that with interest.

Carter's got a very mixed resume. He's done some amazing work, but also some terrible work.

I thought that the article was very informative. Thanks for the info, keep up the good work!!

Wilkins, Watson and Crick all showed very, very bad character when stealing DNA information from Rosalind Franklin. The only guy who seemed to be sorry about it was Wilkins, for admitting later that she contribuited to the understanding of the DNA structure. But even the reasons that led him to do that is questionable. At least, Wilkins seems less dirty to me. Every time I cite Watson and Crick's name I almost puke. They will receive my disdaim forever and either will the Nobel Prize which now, I consider it a great amount of stinky manure. That was a shame!

International Student in the USA - Freshmen Biology

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