Model Research Essay


Rosalind Franklin began her career as a physical chemist studying coal. While working in Paris, she learned the science of X-ray crystallography. In 1951 Rosalind began working on the structure of DNA at Kings College, but unfortunately she did not get along with her co-worker. Although she gave a lecture describing DNA as helical, she is not given credit for this discovery. If it were not for Rosalind's data, Watson and Crick could not have discovered the structure of DNA; however, some of this data, they got without her knowledge. In 1958 Rosalind died; four years later James Watson, Francis Crick, and her co-worker Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their work on the structure of DNA. Rosalind has never been officially recognized for her accomplishments.

Unraveling the Mystery

by Kevin Brown

The names James Watson and Francis Crick are synonymous with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the information macromolecules of life. Most biology textbooks tell of their discovering the structure of DNA and show the famous picture of the two men with their freshly constructed model. Rarely included in this story is a woman named Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin discovered that DNA is helical with a backbone consisting of phosphate groups. Some of her data was used by Watson and Crick to make their discovery, yet she is not given credit for much of this work.

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 and attended Cambridge University during the Second World War. Besides the occasional air raid warning, Rosalind's college life was uneventful. She was very studious and is said to have spent 8 1/2 hours each day in the laboratory (3:56). In 1942, she began her work as a physical chemist at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA) studying the structure and chemical characteristics of coal (3:62). During her time at CURA she developed into a well-respected scientist, wrote seven highly technical papers of her work, and earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University.

In 1947 Rosalind moved to Paris to work for the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique (3:80). The three years she lived and worked in Paris were the happiest period of her life. Her co-workers became her close friends; this fusion of her personal life and her research created a stimulating intellectual atmosphere that she adored. In Paris she also began working in a new field of chemistry that would eventually lead her into the study of DNA.

Jacques Mering, a co-worker and close friend of Rosalind, was an experienced X-ray crystallographer who taught the science to her (3:83). X-ray crystallography is a technique used to determine the postion of atoms within a molecule by firing X-rays through it and recording the pattern on a special film. Analysis of the pattern and mathematical calculations provide evidence of the shape of the molecule and position of its individual atoms. Mering had been working with graphite, a difficult substance to study with this technique, and had learned to use some very unusual approaches of X-ray crystallography to obtain improved results. It was these unorthodox techniques that Rosalind learned and that would help her in the study of DNA.

In 1951 Rosalind accepted an offer from Professor John Randall to return to England and begin working in his laboratory at Kings College (1). Her role at Kings College was to set up an X-ray crystallography program and use it to study the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, when Rosalind arrived at Kings College, she found herself in a rather unwelcome environment. Rosalind and her co-worker Maurice Wilkins, who was also studying DNA, disliked each other from virtually the first day they met. There is no clear explanation of why they did not get along, but it seems that both were equally to blame (3:95). Their poor relationship only worsened with time and kept the two from ever working together as a team.

Despite her differences with Maurice, in only a few months after her arrival, Rosalind held a meeting to present some extraordinary results she had obtained with her X-ray crystallographic analysis of DNA. Among the results she found and announced was that the DNA molecule was helical with an outer backbone of phosphates. Her discoveries should have caused a great deal of excitement; it was the first time that anyone suggested that DNA was helical and had sufficient evidence to support the claim. But nothing like that happened. Evidently, she was doubted and not taken seriously for the research she conducted. Of her lecture Watson says, " . . . Maurice had doubts about whether she was measuring what she claimed" (4:46). Still today a significant number of publications report that Watson and Crick first noted the helical nature of DAN and that only later was Roaslind convinced of this concept.

I believe the source of this confusion stems for James Waton's book, The Double Helix, which is a popular reference book account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. There are several places in The Double Helix where Watson claims Roslaind did not think that DNA was helical. For example, Watson says, "Rosy [Rosalind] did not give a hoot about the priority of the helical theory, and, as Francis prattled on, she displayed increasing irritation. The sermon was unnecessary, since to her mind there was not a shred of evidence that DNA was helical" (4:59).

Despite his saying that Rosaland did not think that DNA was helical, Watson was one of the fifteen scientists present when she announced her finds at the meeting in November 1951. In her notes for the lecture she wrote and underlined the following words to emphasize her main points and conclude her talk: "Conclusion: Big helix in several chains, phosphates on the outside, phosphate inter-helical bonds disrupted by water. Phosphate links available to proteins" (3:128). Watson admits that he did not take notes during the lecture. Could it be that such an important discovery was simply ignored? (4:48).

Rosalind was a scientist who excelled in performing experiments and collecting important data in the laboratory. Watson and Crick's talents were more at assembling various pieces of data and figuring out a way to put them all together into a model. Rosalind supplied a great deal of information without which Watson and Crick would not have made their discovery. The data included the discovery of two forms of DNA (A and B), the density of DNA, and her high quality X-ray crystallographic photographs of DNA for which she is most famous. A funny little story explains how important Rosalind's data was to Watson and Crick. Crick was quizzing Watson on a figure that Rosalind had reported the day before, but Watson could not remember the exact number so he guessed at it. About a week later, after they had announced to the world they had found the structure of DNA, they revealed their model to a group of waiting scientists, but because of the wrong guess by Watson it was immediately proven wrong (4:48-49). From this example, it should be clear how essential Rosalind's data was to Watson and Crick.

Some publications today do acknowledge that Rosalind's data was essential for the discovery of the structure of DNA, but few discuss how Watson and Crick came about it. Certainly Rosalind was unselfish with her results. She freely discussed much of her data and revealed her X-ray crystallographs to other scientists. However, without her knowledge, Watson and Crick also obtained some of her data from two sources in an underhanded way.

Their first source of data was Maurice. Maurice began secretly to do the same experiments as Rosalind. The reason for his doing so are unexplained, but it is certainly a clear indication that he knew her work was important and moving in the right direction. While James Watson was visiting Kings College, Muarice quietly shared this data and Rosalind's newest X-ray crystallographic photograph of DNA with him. It was this data that convinced him that DNA was helical with the phosphate backbone ouside despite Rosalind having reported it in her lecture over a year earlier. The influence of this data upon James Watson may be best described in his own words: "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race." Later he says that the photographs of DNA clearly show a helical pattern (4:98). Although Watson was often skeptical of Rosalind's work, he was no longer after receiving this important data and he says, "Of course this presumed that Rosy had hit it right in wanting the bases in the center and the backbone on the outside" (4:98).

Watson and Crick also received data from Rosalind's work through one Randall, a laboratory man, though Randall did not know he supplied it to them. Randall wrote a report on the Medical Research Council summarizing some of the work being done in order to display the productivity of his laboratory. Among the reports was some of Rosalind's research. A member of the council was a friend of Watson and Crick, and he supplied them with a copy of the report. Athough it was not confidential, no one at Kings College realized that the report was being passed around. James Watson freely admits to the whole thing in his book: "By then it had been checked out with Rosy's precise measurements. Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at King's realized they were in our hands" (4:104-5).

On February 28, 1953, about one month after the two previous incidents, Watson and Crick completed their model for the structure of DNA. The race was over. To Watson's surprize, Rosalind accepted the model with no bad feelings and even wrote a paper to support their discovery.

Later that year Rosalind began working on the tobacco mosaic virus at Birbeck College. However, her time there would be limited. She was soon diagnosed with cancer, and in 1958, it took her life (2). In 1962 James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their work on the structure of DNA (1). Rosalind did not share the award because it is not given posthumously. Despite the discoveries she made she was never officially recognized for her work.

My intention is not to discredit Watson and Crick for their contribution to science. Together they did some amazing detective work and finally solved a puzzle that remained an enigma to other scientists, including Rosalind Franklin. However, in history, we usually only remember the winners, not those who came in second, or helped the winners to win. Rosalind Franklin deserves far more credit in discovering the structure of DNA than history gives her. If it were not for her, today the names of Watson and Crick probably wouldn't mean anything special to us.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Ardell, David. "Rosalind Franklin." _Franklin. html.

    This article is the most complete source about Rosalind Franklin that I found on the Internet. The article focuses mainly on the work Rosalind conducted at Kings College. The theme of the article is the discoveries Rosalind made and the lack of credit she has received for them. It is filled with information; it is slanted on her behalf.

  2. "Rosalind Franklin"

    This is a brief description of Rosalind Franklin. It is useful for finding out her vital statistics, a few important dates, and about the work she conducted. It is too brief and doesn't tell enough.

  3. Sayre, Anne. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: Norton, 1975.

    This book is written in defense of Rosalind. It attempts to discredit James Watson and his book The Double Helix. The book describes Rosalind's life form her birth to her death thinly. It concentrates on her years studying DNA. My essay is heavily indebted to this book. It is a must for anyone studying Rosalind Franklin and the whole controversy.

  4. Watson, James. The Double Helix. New York: Norton, 1980.

    This is James Watson's account of the discovery of DNA. It is a fascinating book with personal stories intertwined with technical learning and the discovery of DNA. Watson is anti-Rosalind. He portrays her in an unflattering manner. I used this book to present the thoughts and actions of James Watson.

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