Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin; the forgotten discovery.

Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin; the forgotten discovery.

Image: flickr.com

1962, the year that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in recognition of “their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. This Nobel Prize was awarded 9 years after they published their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Another important figure was not included in this joint Nobel Prize; Rosalind Franklin. At this time posthumous Nobel prizes were not permitted unless the individual had been nominated before their death, but if alive it is unlikely that Rosalind Franklin would have received this recognition that she deserved, considering she had not received such recognition in the years between publication of the structure of DNA, and her death in 1958.

Whilst it is not Rosalind Franklin’s name that is synonymous with DNA structure, it was in fact her application of X-Ray diffraction, which she used to study DNA that initiated the great discovery of its structure. The images that she produced through over 100 hours of x-ray exposure provided evidence that DNA had two forms. The controversial photograph 51 depicted one of these forms.

When you think of controversial science perhaps your mind takes you to the good old classic case of Natural selection which required time before being accepted by the scientific community, and general population. The controversy surrounding photograph 51 does not stem from general disbelief of its validity. Instead, a story of misconduct and appropriation ensues.

Image: Wikicommons –  Image of X-ray diffractions of DNA by Rosalind Franklin


Maurice Wilkins had been working in the same laboratory as Rosalind Franklin at the time of her work on DNA. He was also aware of James Watson and Francis Crick’s competing efforts to discover the structure of DNA. The version of events following the manifestation of photograph 51 involves Maurice Wilkins showing Watson and Crick photograph 51, unbeknownst to Rosalind Franklin. This photograph contained the missing piece of the puzzle that allowed Watson and Crick to solve the structure.

This ‘stolen’ missing puzzle piece cheated Rosalind Franklin from the opportunity to solve the structure of DNA herself, which she reportedly came very close to, but not close enough. Watson and Crick published their findings on March 7th in 1953. They barely acknowledged Rosalind Franklin’s vital contribution, with a meagre footnote referencing some general knowledge of Franklin and Wilkins contribution. Franklin’s article was published second to Watson and Crick’s, emphasising its perceived inferiority.

The events described above represent a significant yet small fraction of her scientific contributions. Her research ranged from DNA, to the micro-structure of coals and carbons, to the structure of plant viruses; specifically the tobacco mosaic virus. It is thus important to recognise her contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure, without negating away from her many other accomplishments.

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