Depending on who you ask, Rosalind Franklin was a lively wit, a fierce debater attracted to intelligent people; or she was a complete arsehole, an obsessive compulsive with no social skills whatsoever who hated people in general and men in particular. Mousey, stocky, unattractive, a bespectacled blue-stocking; or handsome, with perfect eye sight and a penchant for flashy lipstick. A diligent plodder, a scientific failure without the insight to know what she was looking at; or a brilliant woman who discovered the structure of DNA.
Science is about facts, but as humans we understand the world in stories, in fictions. We take the facts and turn them over and over, spinning them into lines of light and dark that we follow down through the years. Over half a century on, the facts surrounding the discovery of the structure of DNA shift in and out of the light, a mess of lies and misinformation woven around figures larger than life, as mad as they were brilliant.
Facts and fictions facing each other across space, never quite meeting. Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins and of course: Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind, who would have been fiercely, resolutely, on the side of the facts.
Born on July 20th in London to a family of passionate Jewish social activists, Rosalind was expected to graduate from high school and become involved in community service; a path her conservative, religious father felt was respectable for women. But even in high school she was set on science. She knew, with the clear vision and determination that would force her on through life, what it was she wanted to do: chemistry. In letters to her father she writes passionately of the importance of science and the search for facts instead of dogma. “I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.”
Six years before Cambridge agreed to award women with titular degrees, Rosalind graduated in 1941 with what was accepted as the equivalent, for women, of a bachelor’s degree.
In the same year, as it struggled to recover from the London Blitz and Europe plunged ever deeper in to war, England passed the National Services Act, which would conscript all unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 43 into war-related work. At the British Coal Utilisation and Research Association Rosalind began work on the porosity of coal, the field in which she gained her PhD, moving on to Paris in the years after the war to work in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat.
During her years in Paris she worked using x-ray diffraction techniques, methodically amassing data and publishing landmark papers on the properties of coal that are still used today. In 1951, Rosalind, just 30 years old but already a specialist, moved to Kings College London to work in the laboratories of John Randall, alongside the shifting and retreating Maurice Wilkins, and the wheels of history were set in motion.
Maurice had worked on the Manhattan Project with narrow, obsessive focus. It wasn’t until the day the bomb went off, at a celebratory party, that he began to realise what he’d done. Drink in hand, Maurice went to congratulate a co-worker. The other man turned to him, and said simply: I always hoped it wouldn’t work.
After the war, Maurice retreated from the public world and went to work on the structure of DNA. Because he thought it would be about life, instead of death. And because he thought it would be uncontroversial. From the beginning, Rosalind and the shy Maurice couldn’t get along. The head of the lab bungled Rosalind’s hiring, leading Maurice to believe that she would be working under him, and Rosalind to believe that she would be running her own research along with her graduate student Raymond Gosling. It should have been easy to clear up. But Maurice was too retiring, and Rosalind too fierce. In the end, they worked at opposite ends of the corridor on research that was separate but connected, rarely speaking.
So things stood in late 1951, when James Watson and Francis Crick began their own search for the structure of DNA. Precocious, arrogant, young, and hungry, Watson and Crick were the dandies of their home college in Cambridge. Too much drinking, went the mutters. Too little working. No one thought they had a chance.
At the time, there were two techniques that could be used to find DNA’s structure. The first was Rosalind’s: the long, arduous, meticulous collection of experimental data. Gosling explains that she thought you could build models all day, “but how did you prove which one was right? On the other hand, if you made the measurements, if you did all the corrective geometry, and you put them into the equations you would let the data speak for itself, and out of that would come a definitive structure.” Facts. Facts.
The other way was model-building, a sort of reverse engineering with the minimum of facts, shooting in the dark and hoping for results. Risky but beautiful. Spinning stories. Model building was the method being used in the US by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, a charismatic chemist who held court at Caltech to rooms of admiring students. And it was where Watson and Crick chose to lay their bets.
The thing was, even for models, you needed facts. Watson and Crick knew of the researchers working at King’s, and when Watson heard that Rosalind would be presenting parts of her latest findings he travelled to London and snuck in to the seminar.
Sure of his ability to retain Rosalind’s data, not even taking notes, Watson raced back to Cambridge, where he and Crick built their first model. Triumphant, they called up the King’s team to ask them to come down and view it. When the King’s team arrived, Rosalind just laughed. Watson hadn’t understood the difference between the two forms of DNA she’d presented, the A form and the hydrated B form, and as a result the model was completely wrong.
In using Rosalind’s data without her knowledge or permission Watson and Crick had made an unforgiveable breach of scientific etiquette, and when Cambridge found out they were shut down, rapped over the knuckles and forbidden to look at the structure of DNA again.
At King’s, Rosalind and Maurice went back to their separate ends of the corridor. Months passed through 1952 in the steady collection of data, as they moved towards and away from the helical structure.
Time began to tip inevitably into the future. Crick’s thesis supervisor passed parts of Rosalind’s data under the table to Watson and Crick, who couldn’t let the problem be. Rosalind took the famous, the infamous, the beautiful photograph 51, the spinning of darkness and light that would change everything. She started writing up her paper. And then, in California, Linus Pauling built a model that he proclaimed had solved the structure. On the 30th January 1953, Watson and Crick got their hands on an advance copy of Pauling’s manuscript. They knew, straight away, that he was horribly wrong. Elated, Watson jumped straight on a train to London, wanting to show it to the King’s team, feeling like they’d been granted a second chance.
In the halls of King’s, so the story goes, Watson asked for Maurice but couldn’t find him. Instead, he wandered the narrow corridors until he found his way in to Rosalind’s laboratory. When Rosalind returned and found him alone she lost her temper. Who knows what he was doing; who knows what she said. The stories are rampant. They dazzle. She threw him out. In the corridor outside he ran into Maurice. I thought she was going to hit me, Watson said. Oh, said Maurice. Oh, yes. They went back to Maurice’s office.
And there, in a moment that changed history—out of sympathy, out of spite—Maurice reached into his desk and brought out a print of Rosalind’s Photograph 51. Put it on the table between them. Spun light. Strips of darkness.
Watson had heard Crick talking about diffraction techniques, and knew straight away what the photograph meant. A helix. A double helix. It was like seeing a beautiful woman, Watson says today, a woman you knew you were going to see again.
And just like that, it was over. In March 1953 Watson and Crick published their paper on the helical structure of DNA in Nature. They alluded to the King’s data but did not credit it. Rosalind’s paper on her results ran third to their lead in the same edition. Her notebooks indicate that she, too, had found the helical structure.
The King’s team was shut down. Rosalind was recruited by the Irish communist J. D. Bernal at Birkbeck College, a well-known supporter of women scientists, to work on the tobacco mosaic virus. She died just over four years later, in the spring of 1958, of illnesses relating to ovarian cancer at 37. She never knew how much of her data had been used in the construction of the double helix model. It’s unclear if the countless hours she spent lying under the x-ray adjusting her specimens contributed to the cancers.
Her death certificate read: A Research Scientist, Spinster, Daughter of Ellis Arthur Franklin, a Banker.
Four years later Watson, Crick and Wilkins jointly received the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” The Nobel can’t be awarded posthumously. At the ceremony Rosalind was only mentioned in passing, by Maurice, at Crick’s request.
Watson and Crick went on to lead lives of scientific superstardom, Watson as a jet-setting playboy, Crick as a recluse. Up until his death, Crick refused to talk about her. Watson demonised her with relish and giggles. The “real problem” in those years, he says, was “Rosy. The thought could not be avoided that the best place for a feminist is in another’s lab.”