In Her DNA

Rosalind Franklin’s work was pivotal to one of the 20th century’s greatest scientific discoveries.

Naomi Elster | Published 14 January 2019

A life examined: Rosalind Franklin, c.1950.In November 2018, the Bank of England asked the public to ‘Think Science’ when nominating candidates for recognition on their new £50 note. They received 114,000 eligible nominations by early December. One scientist to make the first shortlist, which included Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Alexander Fleming, was Rosalind Franklin, who was given odds of 6/1 to win by bookmakers William Hill.

Franklin was born into a wealthy and influential family in London’s Notting Hill in 1920 and died in 1958. Her parents had a strong social conscience. Her mother, the daughter of a lawyer, dedicated much of her time to charitable work, including helping unmarried mothers. Her father, an investment banker, worked with the London Working Men’s College, one of the earliest adult education colleges in the UK. Unsurprisingly, Franklin was encouraged to think independently about politics and society and to defend her opinions. Although her family was Jewish, she later became an agnostic. At Cambridge, she joined the Jewish Society, though it has been suggested this was simply to keep her grandfather happy.

Many great achievements were being made by Jewish scientists at that time. In 2014 the economist Petra Moser reported that, when Jewish scientists fled the Holocaust for America, US patents increased by 31 per cent. But life for a Jewish scientist was not easy. Moser reported ‘unusual administrative hurdles’ for Jewish émigrés when seeking visas and employment in the UK. Franklin was opposed to the government limiting the number of Holocaust refugees they would accept, but found little sympathy from her colleagues.

Franklin’s background did not necessarily help her advancement; neither did her gender. Cambridge did not award degrees to women, so she graduated with a ‘degree titular’. Her subsequent graduate research was short-lived. Her supervisor reportedly drank heavily and disapproved of her interest in ‘raising the status of her sex to equality with men’.

Nevertheless, she persisted, to adopt a phrase from a modern movement. Coal was vital to the war effort and Franklin’s research with the new British Coal Utilisation Research Association earned her a PhD in physical chemistry. She then spent happy years in Paris, where she honed her skills in X-ray crystallography, a technique which has been directly linked to 29 Nobel Prizes.

In 1951, Franklin came back to the UK to work at King’s College London, where she met Maurice Wilkins. A quiet man, Wilkins had worked on the atomic bomb and suffered extreme guilt. John Randall, who supervised both Franklin and Wilkins, poisoned their relationship from the beginning through a miscommunication which led Wilkins to believe that Franklin, his peer, was his junior. She could not understand why he was trying to muscle in on her work; he could not understand why she was not reporting to him. Disliking confrontation, Wilkins vented his frustration to researchers from a competing lab. Eventually, Wilkins took Franklin’s Photo 51, an image of DNA and the result of over 100 hours on an X-ray crystallography machine she had perfected, and showed it to James Watson and Francis Crick, two scientists also working on DNA, without Franklin’s knowledge. Photo 51 enabled the Watson and Crick breakthrough. Franklin received little credit.

The discovery of DNA as a double helix is one of the most important milestones in the history of biology. It has made sense of life as we know it and paved the way for the understanding and treatment of many diseases. Whether he realised its significance or not, Wilkins should not have stolen and shared Franklin’s data. But the blame also lies with Randall. It was his responsibility to make sure his staff were clear on their relative positions. Raymond Gosling, a student in the lab, came to believe that Randall may have deliberately engineered the bitter conflict between Wilkins and Franklin, a source of unhappiness for them both, because he thought it would make the lab more productive.

Watson and Crick are now famous for their discovery. Franklin’s role, however, is only beginning to be acknowledged, helped by Anne Sayre’s book Rosalind Franklin and DNA (1975). Crick acknowledged that they could not have made the breakthrough without her. Wilkins admitted that ‘none of us behaved quite impeccably’. Watson, though, is another matter.

He published The Double Helix (1968), against the wishes of Crick and Wilkins, in which reviewers called his portrayal of Franklin ‘cartoonish’. He gave the impression she was Wilkins’ assistant, unable to analyse her own data. Her publication record and prior and subsequent work counter this. But Watson could write what he wanted without fear of libel, as Franklin was dead by the time of the book’s publication. While he is more positive about her personality and abilities in the epilogue, the damage had been done. Many people only know of Franklin through Watson’s book.

Science has big issues with bullying. Every lab is its own unit – there is rarely any real accountability. Fear of qualifications being withheld if abuses are reported, lack of jobs, a small community and insecure contracts mean that scientists remain unnaturally dependent on the personality of the professor who runs lab. At the extreme end of the bullying scale is sexual harassment and abuse. A chilling report in the Guardian last July concluded that science was ‘a breeding ground’ for this kind of behaviour, due to a strict, male-dominated hierarchy. Writing Franklin’s role in one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the last century back into history is important; it might lead to more questioning and undermining of a hierarchy which makes it so easy for senior researchers to bully.

Naomi Elster is a scientist and journalist.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week