New studies attribute an active role in the discovery of the DNA double helix to Rosalind Franklin
The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA has behind it one of the stories in which a woman is relegated from its importance. New documents resize Rosalind Franklin’s role and transform her from the victim of a robbery to a key person in that investigation.
70 years ago this Tuesday Nature published the article signed by James Watson and Francis Crick on the double helix and it has been the day chosen by the journal for publish an article with new documents proving the authentic active role of the British chemist and crystallographer.
Franklin’s case is one of the best known about how a brilliant woman is relegated by her male colleagues, in fact, Watson and Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine together with Maurice Wilkins, but she was left out. Although over the years her figure was recovered, it now seems that her contribution was never well explained.
The article that publishes Nature is signed by Matthew Coob of the University of Manchester (UK) and Nathaniel Comfort of the University of Maryland (USA). “Rosalind Franklin was no victim in the discovery of the structure of DNA. A letter that went unnoticed and an unpublished newspaper article, both from 1953, show that she contributed equally“, write the authors of the commentary.
Recent history has portrayed Franklin (1920-1958) as. victim of a theft by Watson and Crick of his work.specifically of the so-called ‘Photograph 51’, taken by chemistry and considered the “philosopher’s stone of molecular biology”. Legend has it that Wilkins, with whom Franklin worked, competing with Crick and Watson, taught the latter, without the consent of chemistryan X-ray image of DNA taken by her shortly before. That photograph “has become emblematic of both Franklin’s achievements and her mistreatment,” say the authors of the article.
Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer at age 37, “is portrayed as a brilliant scientist, but unable to decipher what her own data was telling her about DNA. Supposedly, she sat with the image for months without realizing its meaning, while Watson understood it at a glance.”
The new documents are a draft of a previously unstudied newspaper article written by journalist Joan Bruce in consultation with Franklin and intended for publication in Time magazine, as well as a letter from one of the scientist’s colleagues to Crick that “had gone unnoticed.”
Franklin was “an equal member.”
Both documents were found by the authors in Franklin’s archive at Churchill College, Cambridge (UK). These texts, according to Cobb and Comfort, indicate that Franklin did understand the structure of DNA and was “an equal member of the quartet that solved the double helix.”
Along with Maurice Wilkins, he was “one half of the team that articulated the scientific question, took the first important steps toward a solutionprovided crucial data and verified the result,” the article notes. For Cobb and Comfort, it is crucial to know Franklin’s story well. “She confronted not only the routine sexism of the time, but also more subtle forms embedded in science, some of which are still present today.”