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Rosalind Franklin and DNA: How wronged was she?

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'Photograph 51' playbillIt’s remarkable what can happen when James Watson isn’t in the room.

The Nobel laureate, known for his brilliance as well as his large ego and small superego, was expected to participate in a panel discussion Tuesday night about the play "Photograph 51," which focuses on Rosalind Franklin and her x-ray diffraction work in the early 1950s at King’s College London that contributed to discoveries of the molecular structure of DNA, first published in 1953.

Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1962 for this work, four years after Franklin’s death of ovarian cancer, possibly induced by her work with x-rays.

Nobels are only awarded to living scholars but a handful of researchers and advocates in the past few decades have argued that Franklin deserves more credit than she got for the DNA discovery. Her images of the B-form of the molecule, which revealed DNA as made of two helices (especially the "photograph 51" image), were shared with Wilkins, Watson and Crick without her permission. The data provided key information that allowed Watson and Crick (who worked at Cavendish Laboratory in England) to correctly model DNA as a double helix, a project they had been pursuing aggressively for months in competition with Linus Pauling at Caltech and with John Randall, who headed up the King’s laboratory where Wilkins worked with Franklin.

The new play, by Anna Ziegler, dramatizes the laboratory dynamics and complex relationships among all these playersLynne Osman Elkin, Helen Berman, and Anna Ziegler, from left to right, at panel discussion during that heady time. It again airs out the controversy over Franklin’s contribution to the work that won the Nobel. Some scenes portray sexism, tense competition, subtle anti-Semitism and outright deception as defeating Franklin at times, while other scenes show a prickly and defensive Franklin as her own worst enemy.

Watson was scheduled to take part in the Tuesday panel discussion at the Julia Miles Theater in Manhattan, near the Ensemble Studio Theatre where the play currently is being produced. But, to the disappointment of the audience, he was a no-show, due to his attendance at a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that he used to head up. His absence, however, may have contributed to a vigorous back-and-forth between two of the remaining panelists, New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade and California State University biologist and Franklin scholar Lynne Osman Elkin. (Rutgers University biologist Helen Berman was also on the panel.)

Stuart Firestein and Nicholas Wade, from left to right, at panel discussionWade asserted that there is a "mythology" around Franklin’s contributions to the work that distorts the actual history of what occurred, implying that the credit truly belongs where it stands in the record books. He also contended that, as Franklin was unaware of any unauthorized sharing of her data with Wilkins, Watson and Crick, and thus did not feel wronged, no wrong-doing occurred.

As Wade spoke, Elkin shook her head back and forth numerous times. After Wade stated his position, Elkin quietly but firmly rebutted with her own research findings that underscore the importance of Franklin’s contributions and back up the claim that she was treated unfairly. Despite the fact that they were seated next to each other, Wade and Elkin avoided eye contact during this debate, moderated by Columbia University biologist Stuart Firestein and transcribed below:

[Click here to listen to a podcast of the first half of the panel discussion and here to listen to a podcast of the rest of the discussion.]

Firestein: I am going to try to make this case, you tell me whether it’s legitimate or not—that [James D.] Watson’s Double Helix book was in many ways the first sort of tell-all book about science and labs. That prior to that I think the view would have been all scientists just wear white coats and go about their business, call each other Doctor, and Mister, and Miss, and turn buttons on machines and things like that. Right?

But Watson’s was really, in many ways, the first book to show something—some other side of it; good or bad.

Wade: Well, it was a very subtle book and I think it has been widely misunderstood. I mean, it is, on the one hand, historically accurate; but on the other hand, he was writing it to portray the feelings of a young, 22-year-old man. And not to portray his feelings as a mature—when he was writing.

So he inadvertently gave rise to much of the myth about Rosalind Franklin by emphasizing the importance of this photograph that Wilkins had shown him. And in fact, although perhaps very exciting for him, his very dramatic moment, it is important to know what history is being misunderstood.

The photograph was very important to Francis Crick, but Crick was not given it by Watson because Watson didn’t have it. Crick saw the photograph in an annual report which was created by the various units in the Medical Research Council [MRC] to prevent duplication or [inaudible]. And he came by it partly legitimately.

I asked him once if he thought he had come into Rosalind Franklin’s information in a fair way and he said yes, he thought it was fair. It was information in the MRC report, was identical—was identical with what she had given in the public lecture, which Watson had attended, and to which Crick, too, had been invited but could not go.

So, in a way a whole mythology has been spun out of Watson’s book by people like—particularly by Anne Sayre [author of Rosalind Franklin and DNA, W.W. Norton & Co., 2000] who you mentioned—who—who—who laid the basis for the mythological treatment of this discovery, of seeing—of portraying Rosalind Franklin as a wronged heroine, which is—what was certainly not Rosalind’s view.

And I think stands in stark contrast to the actual historical fact—I mean, if you’re looking at this from a dramatic point of view. It was very dramatic: you had—you had three teams racing for the same discovery and the odds-maker would have backed Linus Pauling of Caltech to have found it.

You had the two English teams, one of whom Watson and Crick had nothing going for them but their wits. The other team at King’s College, London, was riven by these—these—these two personal dramas, the first of which was that John Randall, the head of the [King's] lab, wanted to grab the DNA problem from Maurice Wilkins, and his first maneuver was to get a new hire in and to force Wilkins to give his DNA material, his equipment and even his technician to the new hire, who, of course, was Rosalind Franklin.

And she made this very important technical advance in distinguishing the A and B form, but she was highly obstructive in that she refused to discuss anything with Wilkins, who actually contributed a lot to the problem. She spent most of her time focusing on the one form, as we now know. She failed to understand many things about the structure.

And she vastly held up the King’s team in this survival end to this race and destroyed—the story all ended surprisingly happily in that the Cambridge team found the answer. There were three papers published in Nature, the first by Watson and Crick. The second and the third by Wilkins and by Franklin. So Franklin got to say, in Nature, in the same issue as Watson and Crick, everything she knew about DNA, including the publication of the photographs.

So the idea that she was robbed of credit is incorrect. It is also incorrect that she was discriminated against because she was a woman. So it has come back to Anna’s play. Although it is very dexterous it, it ended up by focusing on Rosalind, it inevitably falls into the mythological treatment of this important discovery and not on to the historical facts.

So in fact it raises a further point. Now a play about—a historical drama has to have a message that is true, I think. Although the dramatist has every license to invent conversation, to mix up times and places, of course that is their license. But the bottom line is it has to be true to some message. And I don’t—I didn’t hear a true message in the play. Not—I didn’t hear a message that corresponded to anything that I know about this discovery.

Firestein: Does anybody want to—[laughter among audience]. I’m just going to take a short break in here. [more laughter]

Elkin: As the person whose face is contorted the most—I think that I disagree with you on several points. The most important was¬¬—Watson wrote this magnificent book. I recommend it highly. But it is not an accurate, historical portrayal. It is important in terms of Rosalind Franklin as it is what brought her in the forefront.

I do not think they treated her properly. There is a lot of literature about that, a lot of people thought that. It is not just "that feminist Sayre," or as one put it, that "f" word in front of me to saying that—First of all, in terms of did they get this stuff fairly—and Crick has evolved in this; Watson has never wanted to let go of this—you do not hand unpublished data to a competitor. Period. I don’t care if the MRC report was not marked confidential. That was a mistake and Randall had an absolute fit. And you should go to the archives and read the 50 letters that [Max] Perutz [a molecular biologist who later won the Nobel prize] received about his little action there, about handing that thing over.

In the early years, only crystallographers knew that there was something wrong with the three papers. They looked at their brilliant, brilliant first paper. And I want to be clear, I think everybody deserves credit for this. I do not diminish anybody’s contribution to this work. And then it’s, okay, where’s the data? Anybody who knew anything knew we need data for this.

Then we look at Wilkin’s paper and say they’re as near. Then they look at Franklin’s paper and there is the data but why isn’t she acknowledged. And part of that was because of the snaky deal that was done between Randall, the head of Kings’s, and Bragg, the head of Cavendish [Laboratory], to cover up the very awkward fact that the data had migrated from one place to the other.

And in fact, Rosalind Franklin had written two Acta [Crystallographica] articles with the double helix spelled out, reconciling the A and the B. She did not solve it; she did not do it. She got really close, and she didn’t do it. But she deserved to be referenced in their article. And Randall had to know that because she couldn’t have sent the Acta articles off to be received at Acta by March 6 without his knowing that.

So I don’t think they acknowledged her, if you read systematically. Whether we were talking about the Nobel Prize or the 1954 methods paper, which I’d be glad to quote if somebody doubts what I’m saying. Anything that is said about Rosalind Franklin, first it’s Wilkins and then it’s Franklin, and then it is, "but of course we didn’t really need that data, we used stereochemistry and models."

I do not think anybody really realized that the model is based on her material until The Double Helix we have a hint of it, and when they were coming up for the Nobel Prizes, the famous letter that was reprinted in Science by the team of [Francois] Jacob and [Jacques] Monod. And Monod wrote to Crick and said, "Well, there’s talk from Bragg, maybe we shouldn’t give Wilkins the Nobel Prize. Does he deserve it?" And I have that letter with me, too, if you want to see the letter.

And Crick said, "He definitely deserves it. He did very, very important work getting the structure initially, doing preliminary work, and at the end doing brilliant work confirming it. But the actual data he used was that of Rosalind Franklin. Period.

Wade: You—I think the problem with that saying Rosalind was ill-treated is that there’s absolutely no evidence that she herself believed this to be the case.

Elkin: She didn’t know.

Wade: She was definitely in a position to complain if she wished. She had just arranged a new job. She was leaving the King’s College department to go to Birkbeck College. We know that she complained vociferously about things she thought were unfair, like being paid less than—at the MRC—at being paid less than men who did the same job. But she never, ever, complained about this.

Moreover, she became great close friends with Watson and with Crick. But she’s unlikely—if in fact she felt they had stolen her discovery. She must have known that they were using her data because there were no other data—her data are acknowledged in Crick’s paper. And again, in the second paper he published in Nature a month later. What prevented Crick from giving a much fairer acknowledgment to Rosalind Franklin in the original Nature paper, which he wished to do, was that he to negotiate this with Wilkins.

So in his original draft is, he says, "We thank Rosalind Franklin for her beautiful uh photo of DNA," which makes quite clear that this was what he was relying on. Now, at Wilkins’ suggestion he crossed out the phrase "beautiful photo." So it was not an adequate acknowledgment but it was a very different story than stealing her discovery, which is the way it has been portrayed.

Elkin: Nicholas, you are absolutely right. There was an earlier, more accurate acknowledgment. It wasn’t to Franklin, it was to Wilkins and Franklin and it did say "very beautiful photographs" which only meant Franklin’s. And Wilkins was the one who crossed it out. There are actually six drafts. Very interesting to see that.

And also to see how weak, false, even the first two or three were, before Wilkins got it to decimate it more compared to the draft they wrote about the first model, where they very very clearly acknowledged Franklin.

Wade: So she isn’t treated too badly in there. And I did want to point out that Crick, in his later papers—when he didn’t have to sort of negotiate things with Wilkins, said quite plainly, in his paper in Proceedings to the Royal Society, that this other discovery depended on—on results from—from King’s. I forget if he specifically mentioned Franklin—but he was quite clear that she was the—that this data was the source of the discovery.

Credit allocation is always a problem with—in science. Especially—particularly with that many people involved. But when you look back at all the historical circumstances surrounding this particular problem, although Franklin did not get exactly the [recognition] which we all now think she deserved, she got a very big chunk of it. That—at least—and I am sure that was her view, too, or she would have behaved very differently.

Firestein: So, not to belabor this too much further, what’s interesting about this, of course, is, this is really an important discovery. I mean, this was a critical discovery that had to be made. Now, it would have been made one way or the other. I kind of agree with you that Pauling was probably the odds-on favorite, and indeed, I would go so far as to say that had Watson and Crick not come into Rosalind’s photograph—by hook or crook; whichever way it was—they would have lost the race entirely. All—or both of the English labs. And it would now be called Pauling Helix, or whatever we now call it.

And Watson, Crick, Franklin, and Wilkins would be all unknowns to us today, or largely so. That’s just my personal theory, mind you, about this. But—but I think one could make a case for that because Pauling was quite close, and very smart, and knew where he was going.

So—so the interesting thing, though, I think is, is this dynamic in the laboratory. And I am assuming this is kind of what interested you in the writing because it seems to become more and more a part of the play as the play goes on. The impossibility of it. I’m particularly struck by the one moment when Gosling says, "Here was a moment when it could have gone one way, but then that was gone." It was actually Rosalind’s fault it seems.

Firestein: In your writing. Am I right?

Ziegler: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think—at least what drew me to the material was the fact that I did not think that Rosalind Franklin was a, you know, sort of wronged person. I mean, I- it seemed to me that there was so much that uh that came from her, that interfered with the scientific process. So it’s interesting to me that felt—that the play felt to you like it was sort of continuing to mythologize her—I mean, at least that was not my intention to show her in that light.

Or as someone who, you know, was just a victim, or ill-treated. I find what’s so interesting about it, you know, the idea that if certain things had been different maybe—I mean, as you said, if someone hadn’t seen the photograph or if there hadn’t been the misunderstanding with Wilkins when she first got there, or with Randall, about whether she was supposed to be in charge. You know, that those are the things that are sort of the seeds that then kind of sprouted what ended up being the story.

But there are so many other stories that could have happened and that was what I thinking about a lot as I was writing this play.

Berman: So when I saw the play I thought that the way in which Rosalind was portrayed was perhaps harsher than I thought—I didn’t think of her in quite that difficult a personality. And on the other hand I think it was important for the play and I thought that what it was really—for me what it was showing is that she was in a terrible environment for her.

I mean, it isn’t that Wilkins was a terrible person or Randall was a terrible person or anything like that. It just was bad chemistry, which sort of prevented her from—from thinking clearly and being perhaps as creative as she might have been.

And I say that because not having known her and not being a Rosalind Franklin scholar, as you are, I look to what happened when she went to Birkbeck [College] where she just blossomed and she did incredible work and everyone who worked with her loved her and respected her and—and you hear only good things about—and she worked with Aaron Klug, who—she was his supervisor. He was—and he subsequently won a Nobel Prize and always spoke well of her.

So I think what happened is that in King’s she was in an environment that just didn’t suit her. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault; it was bad chemistry, which gives you an inability to do your best work. And you go to a place where—and she must—she obviously recognized it because she quit. And she went to Birkbeck and she flourished at Birkbeck and she did really well. So obviously she was capable of—and before, when she was at—in Paris, she did very well and everybody thought she was terrific.

So I think you did portray—although maybe you made her a much fiercer character than she really was; I don’t know. Because I didn’t know her. But I think it showed what happens when you’re in a bad environment and how everything is misunderstood and you can’t really do the best work you might be able to do.

Firestein: I’m looking for a quote here in a paper that was written by her sister, Jennifer. It’s just a very interesting thing that says, "Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind." This is what is inscribed on her tombstone. There is no mention of DNA. Now granted, one could say well, one could revise that because in 1958 when she passed away perhaps we didn’t really yet know how important DNA was.

But I think it was pretty clear, and yet—and yet it was her work on the tobacco mosaic virus that was presumably what she determined should be on her tombstone.

Podcast Editor Steve Mirsky contributed to this post.

Images: 1. from left: Lynne Osman Elkin, Helen Berman, Anna Ziegler; 2. from left: Stuart Firestein, Nicholas Wade; images courtesy of Rich Kelley


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  1. 1. scientific earthling 1:38 am 11/4/2010

    In science as everywhere else the person credited for an invention or discovery is rarely the person who really does the hard work.

    I admire Rosalind and in my mind at least, give her a lot of credit for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Don’t think for one moment that her work did not lead to her untimely death.

    I started my career as a laboratory assistant at Firestone. We had old spectrophotometers and when I complained that the valves amplifiers driving the UV source were emitting x rays the managers and several of my colleagues all laughed at me. The amplifier units were placed on shelves just under the spectrophotometers just bellow crotch level. Not one single person who worked there had a male child.

    Read "The Double Helix" and you will know what the winners of the noble prize were up to. Now they are going ga-ga, just like the lady (not Rosalind).

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  2. 2. dbtinc 8:42 am 11/4/2010

    IMHO she was short-changed as well. Science has been a male dominated field "forever" but with women entering the various fields over the last 30 or so years, I expect to see them enter the ranks of the NP winners sooner rather then later.

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  3. 3. Cosmic 12:43 am 11/6/2010

    All you have to do to understand why feminism was necessary is to read The Double Helix. I believe that Watson has apologized for it.

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  4. 4. taffazull 1:31 am 11/10/2010

    In science things have a way of correcting themselves and every student of Biology today is aware of the contribution of Franklin.Having been mentioned by some committee awarding a prize though important then is not terribly important now.I think Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck never got the Nobel Prize for their work on electron spin but that hardly detracts from the importance of their contributions.The contribution of Franklin is recognized by everyone today and that is what is really important.

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  5. 5. Tarihunga 8:49 pm 11/10/2010

     (1) M. Wilkins, during his last visit to his homeland, said on Radio NZ 01-3-16 1050h NZDST
    " Rosalind Franklin had taken that particular pattern over 6 months previously and hadn’t told us about it and hadn’t studied it. But when she was getting ready to leave our laboratory, she handed it over to me; so when Watson inquired, I gave it to him."
    At that rate, what impropriety can Wilkins be accused of?

    (2) Franklin had a lab notebook on her DNA work, which she had written in code. Olby mentions it and says Klug knew the code. Where is that book now ? When will the contents be released ? Why did none of the participants in the discussion transcribed by Robin Lloyd allude to it ?

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  6. 6. type3secretion 4:40 pm 11/11/2010

    "Rosalind Franklin had taken that particular pattern over 6 months previously and hadn’t told us about it and hadn’t studied it. But when she was getting ready to leave our laboratory, she handed it over to me; so when Watson inquired, I gave it to him."
    At that rate, what impropriety can Wilkins be accused of?

    This is a distortion of historical fact. First, Wilkins and Franklin were peers, not mentor-student. So, Wilkins had not claim on the photo. Second, he was given the photo by Franklin’s co-worker, who took it from her drawer where she had sequestered it, without her knowledge. Wilkins then showed it to her competitors. He boss, Randall, blew up over that unethical action. It is well documented that Wilkins and Franklin fought constantly. He basically screwed her and got a Nobel out of it.

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  7. 7. type3secretion 4:41 pm 11/11/2010

    It’s far more significant than that. It’s the beginning of molecular biology, and the foundation is a Nobel prize garnered from deceit, theft, misrepresentation, and then (in Watson’s horrific book), slander.

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  8. 8. Tarihunga 6:33 pm 11/11/2010

    I prefer to believe my eminent countryman’s word, publicly stated, on this matter, rather than that of an anonymous raver.
    To correct the new errors, in order:
    i. Wilkins was certainly in a supervising position in that lab; the term ‘mentor/student’ is much nearer the truth than ‘peers’.
    ii. Wilkins said, as I recorded, that Franklin had handed the diffraction pattern to him as she was about to leave his lab. On what authority, then, can it now be claimed that she didn’t know Wilkins was receiving it? The accusation of theft is unfounded.
    iii. Franklin having failed to study that diffraction pattern for over 6 months scarcely looks like the behaviour of a ‘competitor’. She was evidently not very interested in DNA by that stage.
    iv. What deceit occurred?

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  9. 9. drray 10:39 pm 11/7/2012

    It’s amusing to imagine the three guys who pilfered Franklin’s work huddled together trying to figure out what to make of her crystalographs. One of them probably said, maybe that brain Watson, wait I’ve got it, and that was his contribution. Meanwhile Franklin, who was an expert on the physical chemical properties of the resonance structures comprising the nucleotides was probably concerned with the variety of conditions and electron configurations under which various sequences of nucleotides would be stable at low energy. Such things didn’t become important to the molecular biologists until they sought to explain how so many different configurations of the DNA were functional in cellular metabolism, not just the alpha and beta forms,but conformations that would enable the same sequence of nucleotides to code for various different proteins, depending on complex influences on the electronic structures of the nucleotides. So thus we have a comparatively few really smart genes responsible for a vast catalog of amino acid products. The most important thing about such feats of scientific kleptomania is that they distract attention away from some more important line of research. Instead of being satisfied with imagining one simple stable DNA conformation, the alpha double helix, it would have been better to investigate the electrophysical properties further, which Franklin was actually doing. It seems to me the sticky finger gang did not understand Franklin’s work well enough to actually steal it.

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