Friday, August 17, 2007

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Sierra Club


I think that even Linus [Pauling], who was quite good, I think, about giving people their due, and making references to people, -- he wrote to Wilkins and asked for these photographs just to see them, and of course Watson and Crick decided not to send them. You see, Linus didn't know that they were Rosalind Franklin's pictures. There was no reason for him to write to Wilkins. I have always been furious about the Watson book, and about the treatment of Rosalind Franklin. Largely because of his treatment of Rosalind Franklin, who I didn't know very well, but had met and talked to in the laboratory, and I was very glad when this Ann Sayre wrote the book, Rosalind Franklin and DNA. Which needed to be written by someone with spirit, saying the things that needed to be said. - Ava Helen Pauling [wife of Linus Pauling] interview with Lee Herzenberg, September 1977


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Review: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
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There is probably no other woman scientist with as much controversy surrounding her life and work as Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. The story of DNA is a tale of competition and intrigue, told one way in James Watson's book The Double Helix, and quite another first in Anne Sayre's study, Rosalind Franklin and DNA and later in her biography The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin's death at age 37 from ovarian cancer.

Franklin excelled at science and attended one of the few girls' schools in London that taught physics and chemistry. When she was 15, she decided to become a scientist. Her father was decidedly against higher education for women and wanted Rosalind to be a social worker. Ultimately he relented, and in 1938 she enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, graduating in 1941. She held a graduate fellowship for a year, but quit in 1942 to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where she made fundamental studies of carbon and graphite microstructures. This work was the basis of her doctorate in physical chemistry, which she earned from Cambridge University in 1945.

After Cambridge, she spent three productive years (1947-1950) in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L'Etat, where she learned X-ray diffraction techniques. In 1951, she returned to England as a research associate in John Randall's laboratory at King's College, Cambridge.

It was in Randall's lab that she crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins. She and Wilkins led separate research groups and had separate projects, although both were concerned with DNA. When Randall gave Franklin responsibility for her DNA project, no one had worked on it for months. Wilkins was away at the time, and when he returned he misunderstood her role, behaving as though she were a technical assistant. Both scientists were actually peers. His mistake, acknowledged but never overcome, was not surprising given the climate for women at Cambridge then. Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin's colleagues went to men-only pubs.

But Franklin persisted on the DNA project. J. D. Bernal called her X-ray photographs of DNA, "the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." Between 1951 and 1953 Rosalind Franklin came very close to solving the DNA structure. She was beaten to publication by Crick and Watson in part because of the friction between Wilkins and herself. At one point, Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin's crystallographic portraits of DNA. When he saw the picture, the solution became apparent to him, and the results went into an article in Nature almost immediately. Franklin's work did appear as a supporting article in the same issue of the journal.

A debate about the amount of credit due to Franklin continues. What is clear is that she did have a meaningful role in learning the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank. Franklin moved to J. D. Bernal's lab at Birkbeck College, where she did very fruitful work on the tobacco mosaic virus. She also began work on the polio virus. In the summer of 1956, Rosalind Franklin became ill with cancer. She died less than two years later. [Adapted from Women in Science]

Rosalind Franklin - The Dark Lady of DNA
Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
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The Dark Lady of DNA - Book Review by Russell McNeil

Was Nobel laureate James D. Watson fully aware his The Double Helix, the now classic 1968 account of his involvement in the discovery of DNA, would one day explode in his face? Brenda Maddox revisits the genesis of that fateful book in the riveting epilogue of her recent biography of Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA. The book is a bomb shell. The central issue surrounding the life of Franklin and how history remembers Franklin's role in the discovery of DNA, was Watson's memorable but flagrantly disrespectful characterization Rosalind Franklin in The Double Helix. Franklin was of course one of the four principal actors in that discovery, along with Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. The latter three received a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962. Rosalind Franklin died from complications of ovarian cancer in 1958. Maddox, in the newest contribution to this saga, describes Watson's characterization of Rosalind Franklin as, "the termagant who hoarded data she could not comprehend, treated men like naughty little boys and wore dresses even dowdier than those of the average English-woman." Those are fighting words. But that is the unavoidable image of Rosalind Franklin that readers of The Double Helix remember. Maddox dismisses as "pious" Watson's apologetic epilogue in The Double Helix where he limply describes Franklin as a "fine scientist," and how "as a young man, he had not appreciated the difficulties of a woman making her way in a man's world of science." For Maddox, Watson's language is no less than pitiful. In damning Franklin with such "faint praise," Watson ensured that the image he painted of Rosie the shrew, would remain forever fixed in the unconscious collective memory of scientific research. And that is exactly what has happened. This morning I happened to hear a brief CBC Radio News report where a University researcher referred to the discoverers of DNA as "Watson, Crick and Francis!" Watson's "air brushing" of Rosalind Franklin from The Double Helix, from history, and from the annals of 20th century science, has indeed been a success. Maddox may be right. Was this unconscious transformation of "Franklin" into "Francis" simply a modern day manifestation of collective scientific male guilt, expressing itself now on the public air waves as a bizarre gender transformation of Franklin into Francis?

What readers of The Double Helix might not know was that Watson was very much aware of the incendiary implications of his portrayal of Franklin. As Maddox reminds her readers, Harvard University Press had refused to publish Watson's book. In reviewing the draft of Watson's manuscript, Harvard had required the written consent of all of the figures mentioned prominently in the book. Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins objected strongly. In addition, "[Linus] Pauling condemned the portrayals of himself, his wife, his son, Francis Crick, Sir Lawrence Bragg and Rosalind Franklin." Rosalind Franklin could not defend herself. She died at 37 at the peak of her form, ten years before Watson's work was published. But Rosalind's brother, who also read the transcript, was stunned. Watson later described his reactions, as "'rather hysterical' while dismissing an allusion Rosalind's brother's had made to 'defaming the dead.'"

When Nobel laureates speak, we listen. The Double Helix is a classic. This book, although rejected by Harvard, still has authority. Watson had condemned Franklin. And I heard the echo of that condemnation this morning on CBC Radio. But this was not the first time I had noticed this. Several years ago I experienced a similar reaction after I had recommended to two of my colleagues, that in our plan to assign The Double Helix as one of the readings for a fourth year Liberal Studies course we were teaching together then as a team, that we pair The Double Helix with a reading of Anne Sayre's 1975 book, Rosalind Franklin & DNA. Anne Sayre had been a close personal friend of Franklin and her account of Franklin's role had been well received. In fact, the late chemist Jerry Donahue (1920-1985) had reviewed Sayre's book for the Quarterly Review of Biology. And after all, I reasoned to myself, Watson had named Jerry Donahue in The Double Helix as having offered a critical suggestion to Watson at a critical stage in the emergence of the DNA model. Donahue at the time was working at Cambridge where Watson and Crick were conducting their research. Donahue's timely suggestion had indeed enabled Watson to construct a chemically accurate scale model of DNA. Donahue, like Franklin, might also have a legitimate claim for some belated DNA recognition, beyond Watson's brief mention of him in The Double Helix. Here is what Donahue said on the back cover of Sayre's book: "I must urge, if not insist, that anyone who has read, or is to read, Watson's version of these events (in The Double Helix), must also read this other version [emphasis added] in Sayre's book." That was not the only endorsement I felt at the time was needed to take this suggestion to my colleagues. In an attempt to also use a reputable authority figure I noted that Linus Pauling had described Sayre's book as, 'well written and illuminating.' Alas, this pitch fell on deaf ears. Why, went the forceful counter-argument, cloud our student discussions of a great science classic with issues in feminism by raising questions of the alleged miss-treatment of "Rosie" in The Double Helix? She was after all a minor character in the story. Besides, we would "do feminism later" when we read Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex. I relented. Watson's authority had won.

Here is my impression of The Dark Lady of DNA. Rosalind Franklin was a important 20th century scientist whose role in the most important biological discovery of the 20th century has been occluded by distortion of facts, professional marginalization, and an appalling failure of professional ethics surrounding the role of the most important data in the DNA story. Maddox refers to Watson's "air-brushing" of Franklin. Maddox presents us with the facts. Rosalind Franklin was a remarkable scientist; she had hit the big leagues; her peer-reviewed list of publications, 37 at the time of her untimely death, gives her that status. She would have been considered an accomplished scientist irrespective of any involvement by her in the story of DNA. In a tribute to Franklin written in the Times on 19 April, 1958, J. D. Bernal, the esteemed crystallographer, communist activist, and scientific mentor to no less than three Nobel Laureates said this of Franklin: 'She was already a recognized authority in industrial physicochemistry when she chose to abandon this work in favour of the far more difficult and more exciting fields of biophysics.' Later in the article Bernal describes Franklin's work on DNA: 'By the most ingenious experimental and mathematical techniques of X-ray analysis, she was able to verify and make more precise the illuminating hypothesis of Crick and Watson on the double spiral structure of this substance. She established definitely that the main sugar phosphate chain of nucleic acid lay on an outside spiral and not on an inner one, as had been authoritatively suggested.' In Bernal's obituary in Nature, Maddox reminds us again of the importance of Franklin's example. Bernal's praise is eloquent: 'As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.'

The picture that emerges of Rosalind Franklin from Brenda Maddox's biography, The Dark Lady of DNA, is one of a thoroughly professional and careful scientist. Watson's examination of Franklin's famous "photograph 51" was, by Watson's own admission, the most critical element he needed along the path to DNA. That photograph came to Watson through Wilkins in an innocent enough way. It was not stolen or appropriated as some allege. The problem is this. None of those players ever told Franklin about that moment or even that they had seen her photograph. She was never openly consulted or told about the importance of her photograph in their discovery. She went to her death never knowing the full story. That is what Maddox finds thoroughly appalling. To make matters worse, Watson and Crick and Wilkins were all in frequent contact with Franklin during the five years after the discovery of DNA. None of these men had the courage to let her in on what must have felt like a dirty little secret. Only the boys knew the whole story. Franklin had been labeled by Watson in The Double Helix as being 'anti-helical.' That's the excuse he offered for not taking Franklin into his confidence around the photograph. But notes uncovered after her death, as Maddox reveals in The Dark Lady of DNA, demonstrate otherwise. Franklin was far from being "anti-helical." She was careful. She needed better evidence. Watson had justified his reluctance to engage Franklin as arising from an anti-helical bias that rested in his stubborn bias.

The justifications Watson, Crick and Wilkins have offered for ignoring and isolating Rosalind Franklin have always revolved around the implication that she had no vision. The sequence of stages in the discovery of DNA required several so-called "eureka" moments. One of those moments described in The Double Helix was the discovery that the textbook structure of the unit cell that determined the physical relationships between the four DNA bases, adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine(T), was wrong. Watson at the time was attempting to fit these bases into The Double Helix model using cardboard cut outs. An off-the-cuff suggestion by the same Jerry Donahue mentioned above, at this time a visiting chemist at Cambridge from Cal-Tech, asserted that the shape of those DNA bases ought to be the keto form and not the enol form, as the textbooks of the day asserted. Armed now with the memory of Franklin's clear photograph, this next to last step it the emergence of the final model was absolutely crucial. It was not long after Donahue's comment that the now classic paper so often referred to as, "a turning point in scientific history," appeared in Nature. The publication, 'A Structure for Deoxyribonucleic Acid', was published on 25 April, 1953. Maddox recounts a strange follow up story, a curiosity in the history of this saga that Maddox finds "inexplicable." Several months after the Nature publication, Francis Crick contacted Franklin. It was now the summer of 1953. Crick asked Franklin if, in her opinion, the unit cell was, 'truly face-centred monoclinic.' In other words, did Franklin agree with the suggestion offered by Donahue. "The point was important, [Crick] said, 'because if the unit cell is strictly C2, one must have the DNA chains in pairs, running in opposite directions.'" As Maddox reminds her readers, this scientific point was crucial for Watson and Crick. Their historic model could never hold together without the keto structure. In separate papers published that same year, Franklin had said that 'C2 is the only space group possible.' Why, Maddox wonders, had Watson or Crick failed to mention the importance of this and why had they failed to comprehend the importance of this in either of their Nature papers of 1953?

Brenda Maddox has done much in The Dark Lady of DNA to de-construct the image of Rosalind Franklin as portrayed in The Double Helix. There's nothing sugar coated about this biography. Rosalind Franklin was a complex woman. She had strong convictions. She was ambitious for her science and passionate in her research. She had many admirers. She never married but she was loved. She enjoyed trekking in the mountains of Italy and Switzerland. She moved in a circle of free thinking left wing intellectuals but kept her own politics to herself. When Linus Pauling published a paper about DNA before Watson and Crick, it contained a fatal error. Graciously, Franklin wrote to Pauling, politely explaining his mistakes. That took guts - more so in an era where women in science were expected to hold themselves in reserve.

Maddox does not disappoint readers interested in the personal details of Rosalind's Franklin's life. Franklin was conservative in her demeanor and careful in dress and appearance. She was nothing in those areas like the dowdy spinster of Watson's descriptions. Rosalind Franklin had class. Watson and Crick were far too young and far too indiscriminate to notice. She was also a good judge of scientific character. When Franklin died in 1958 she left the residue of her estate to her colleague and former student Aaron Klug. She knew that he had been struggling financially and in her final months wanted to ensure that he would be secure. Years later Aaron Klug was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In his 1982 Nobel acceptance Klug acknowledges Franklin. "Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion." As Maddox reminds her readers in The Dark Lady of DNA, in their Nobel acceptance speeches in 1962 Watson and Crick made no mention of Rosalind Franklin at all. It was only Wilkins who "uttered" Franklin's name, mentioning her as one or two people (the other being Alex Stokes), who 'made very valuable contributions to the X-ray analysis.'

Books from Alibris: Rosalind Franklin

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