There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred

The story behind DNA

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

I am a great fan of crime stories from the period between the two World Wars, known as the golden age of detective fiction. Policemen and amateur sleuths had to rely on their wits and their powers of analysis, reason and deduction to solve many a fiendish crime which, at first blush, seemed both impossible to have been committed and to crack. They invariably did, though, usually because the felon left some tell-tale sign that led to their undoing.

Life has moved on and these days the police have a more powerful array of tools at their disposal, at least if you believe the police dramas which are the staple fare of our TV screens, not least DNA testing. If I had even the faintest inkling to commit a crime, the threat of being unmasked by my DNA would be enough to put me off.  Interestingly, the tale of the discovery of DNA is a murky one with elements that would not have been out of place in a good whodunnit.

Rosalind Franklin always wanted to be a scientist, even though her father tried to steer her away from a career path that was nigh-on impossible for women to make much progress in. She was fortunate enough to attend St Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the few schools at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls, and then graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge.

During the Second World War, Rosalind studied the structure and uses of coal and graphite, publishing several papers and contributing to the development of more effective gas masks. She was awarded a PhD in Physical Chemistry by Cambridge University in 1945.

After the war, Rosalind went to Paris to work under Jacques Mering, from whom she learned about the use of x-ray diffraction techniques to explore and understand the molecular and atomic structures of crystals. Then, in 1951, she made the fateful decision to accept a three-year research scholarship at King’s College, London.

Maurice Wilkins was trying to understand DNA by using X-ray crystallography and so Rosalind was perfectly equipped to contribute to the project. But Wilkins, who was away when Rosalind arrived, assumed that she was hired help rather than be someone who could more than contribute to the project.

Their relationship never recovered from this rocky start.   

Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Rosalind continued to refine her X-ray images of DNA fibres, using ever finer strands. Wilkins, in somewhat of a huff, spent increasingly more time with his friend, Francis Crick, at the Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick and James Watson were attempting to understand the structure of DNA by using a model-based approach.

Around this time Rosalind made a dramatic discovery when looking at what later became known as Photo 51. The DNA in the image had a distinct helical structure with two strands attached at the middle. She gave details of her findings in a lecture but no one seemed to pay any notice.

However, at a conference, at which Crick and Watson rolled out their theories about the structure of DNA, Rosalind challenged them, pointing out that she was working with empirical data not highfalutin ideas. This open criticism of his friends worsened relationships between Wilkins and the woman he now called the Dark Lady. Sensibly, Rosalind decided to move on and took a position at Birkbeck College in 1953.

But during the move, Wilkins came into possession of the famous Photo 51, certainly without Rosalind’s permission, and showed it to Crick and Watson. It was an earth-shattering moment. Here was the missing piece of information, which Crick and Watson needed to complete their accurate model and proof positive that DNA’s helical structure had two strands attached in the middle by phosphate bases.

The duo rushed to print, publishing an article on the structure of DNA in a 1953 edition of the scientific journal, Nature. Ironically, the same edition carried articles by Wilkins and Franklin on the X-ray data they had compiled about DNA but it gave the impression that their contribution was supplementary to rather than one that had informed Crick and Watson’s discovery.

Rosalind continued her researches at Birkbeck, now turning her attention to the structure of tobacco mosaic virus before succumbing to cancer, which she may well have contracted through her work with X-rays.

In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. There was no mention of Rosalind and it is only recently that her contribution to the understanding of DNA has been acknowledged. The Nobel Prize, of course, cannot be awarded posthumously.

Did Crick steal the photograph? Perhaps we should run a DNA test.    

If you enjoyed this, look out for Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, which will be published in April 2020. For details follow this link

In the meantime, to get your fix of unfortunate inventors, try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone, details of which are here


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