The woman behind the double helix – forgotten scientists

The woman behind the double helix – forgotten scientists

The structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid, or DNA, is famously attributed to Francis Crick and James Watson, who supposedly had a brain wave while having a few drinks in the pub – who doesn’t? It’s a lot less likely you’ve heard of Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose work was instrumental in the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Franklin took images of DNA via this method including the famous ‘Image 51’, later used by Watson and Crick to support their findings of DNA’s double helix in 1953.

Rosalind Franklin was in the Biophysical laboratory at King’s College London from 1951. There she conducted work on DNA using X-Ray diffraction to study the structure and chemical make-up of DNA, at the time unknown to science (or anyone for that matter). X-Ray diffraction bounces X-rays off a crystallised object and observes how they scatter, this scattering or diffraction giving information on the structure of the object being analysed. Franklin took images of DNA via this method including the famous ‘Image 51’, later used by Watson and Crick to support their findings of DNA’s double helix in 1953. But the use of Image 51 by Watson and Crick was not known to Franklin as her data was not yet published. Her photographs were given to Watson and Crick by their friend, Maurice Wilkins, who worked in the same laboratory as Franklin but was known to clash with her. Wilkins’ effort to show Watson and Crick image 51 may not have been intended as spiteful, but it resulted directly in a lack of recognition for Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of the DNA double helix. Despite Franklin’s work being considered crucial by Watson, she was not jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with them, that privilege instead going to Wilkins. Supposedly she could not be recognised for her contribution as by the time the award was received in 1962 she had sadly passed away with ovarian cancer at just 37.

Before her death in 1958 she conducted other important work on the Tobacco mosaic virus. She showed that RNA is embedded in its protein, as well as showing that RNA was a single helix unlike the double helix of DNA. This furthered the field of DNA research and influenced research, medicine, as well as undergraduate degrees.

Despite Franklin passing away at such a young age, her contributions to science have been invaluable and have shaped the face of modern biology and science itself. The scientific community is starting to appreciate the importance of her work, but it’s tragic she was never able to witness it in her lifetime. Despite her work being vital for DNA research and biology itself, she is forgotten whilst the work of three men is remembered. So next time you hear someone talking about DNA, remind them that it was a woman named Rosalind Franklin whose research was vital in understanding it.

By Laura Krusin

image source: flickr.com