Editor’s note: Dan Levitt has written, produced and directed documentaries for National Geographic, Science, Discovery and HHMI. He is the author of “What’s Gotten Into You: The Story of Your Body’s Atoms, From the Big Bang Through Last Night’s Dinner.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Seventy years ago on Tuesday, James Watson and Francis Crick revealed the structure of DNA — the genetic instructions in all living things — in the journal Nature.
One of the most important milestones in modern science, does April 25 also mark the date of an intellectual heist? As has been well-documented, a third person contributed to the discovery — the chemist Rosalind Franklin.
In 1968, Watson wrote in his tell-all book, “The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA,” that he and Crick had used Franklin’s data as part of their effort to find DNA’s structure. Since then, many have suspected that she was robbed. Was she?
Was this a case of blatant intellectual theft or legitimate opportunity seized?
The first accusation is that Watson was improperly shown Franklin’s famed photo 51, a remarkably sharp image of DNA made by X-ray crystallography. It is possible to assign blame here, yet the situation was quite complex.
Franklin, a brilliant self-assured scientist at King’s College London, had taken the photograph months earlier with her graduate student Raymond Gosling. They had delayed analyzing it while they worked on other images.
In January 1953, Franklin was getting ready to leave King’s College. Her colleague Maurice Wilkins was independently pursuing DNA’s structure, and she had grown so miserable there, largely because of their rivalry, that she had found a position at another university. As she was told she couldn’t take her research with her, Franklin asked Gosling to give her photograph to Wilkins, who would take over the DNA work.
Fifty miles away at the University of Cambridge, an ambitious duo, the biologist Watson and the physicist Crick, were intently following her progress. They, too, were eager to find the structure of DNA. A year earlier, Watson had traveled to King’s College to attend a lecture Franklin gave to her department.
Using data that she had presented, Watson and Crick had tried building a model to puzzle out DNA’s structure. But after Franklin’s department chair lodged an outraged protest, Watson and Crick’s own department chair, William Bragg, ordered them to stop. He was chagrined that his staff was poaching on the unpublished data of a fellow British lab.
About a year later, Watson and Crick learned that in an as-yet-unpublished paper, the brilliant California Institute of Technology chemist Linus Pauling, had proposed a structure for DNA. Although they saw that his work was obviously wrong, they feared that Pauling would soon find the correct one. So, Watson traveled to London to urge Franklin to begin building a model to work out DNA’s structure before Pauling did.
Franklin, a careful experimentalist, thought model building too speculative. Aggravated by Watson’s insistence, she rebuffed him. On his way out, Watson met Wilkins — Franklin’s rival. Wilkins believed that Franklin had been recruited as his assistant when she arrived at King’s, but that was not what she had been told. Add to that a strong personality clash, and their relationship went downhill fast.
Now, Wilkins was exasperated because, although Franklin had taken her remarkably sharp photo 51 image nine months earlier, he had only seen it a few days before. So, when Wilkins met Watson, he vented his frustration; he displayed Franklin’s photo to show how much she had been withholding from him.
As soon as Watson saw the photograph, he recalled in “The Double Helix,” his pulse began to race. An unmistakable X pattern instantly revealed that DNA must have the shape of a helix, something that he, Crick and Wilkins had suspected but had not confirmed. That meant DNA’s precise structure might be simple enough to find by model building.
Watson did get a little data from the image, but more importantly, he was suddenly convinced that he should race back to Cambridge and try working out DNA’s structure as fast as possible. Watson and Crick swiftly received permission from their department head to begin model building again. Their department chair didn’t want an American — Pauling — to beat them.
Was it unethical for Wilkins to show Franklin’s photo to Watson and Crick? Franklin had not left King’s College yet. For Wilkins to share the image while Franklin was still working on DNA was wrong. Wilkins may have even been asked not to use the photograph until she left. However, he later said, he didn’t think the photo contained any bombshells. Wilkins did it out of pique, not with the intention of giving Watson information that he could use to scoop both Franklin and Wilkins.
In 2021, Howard Markel wrote in The Washington Post that he had pressed Watson a few years ago on the issue of Franklin’s permission. “Watson demurred that since Franklin was ‘only’ a postdoctoral fellow, the King’s College biophysics lab had proprietary rights over all her DNA data. As such, she was required to turn it all over to Wilkins in anticipation of her exit (from King’s College). … Hence, Watson explained, Wilkins was perfectly entitled to show them to anyone he pleased.”
The second accusation, one that a new Nature commentary addresses, is that Watson and Crick gained access to Franklin’s data in an underhanded way soon after they began model building. Her data came their way because Franklin and Wilkins’ lab at King’s College and Watson and Crick’s lab at the University of Cambridge were supported by the same funder. The funder asked Franklin, like others, to submit an interim report on her research, and it was shared with Crick’s doctoral adviser, Max Perutz.
Without asking Franklin’s permission, Perutz gave the report to Crick. This is where ethical opinions differ. In his defense, Crick’s adviser pointed out that the report was not labeled confidential. In fact, Franklin had already presented the same data in the departmental lecture that Watson had attended a year earlier. Had Crick gone to the lecture, he would have learned of it then.
On the other hand, Franklin’s data was unpublished, and she was still interpreting it; no one asked her permission to use it. As Crick’s adviser, Perutz later wrote that he was “inexperienced and casual in administrative matters.”
In the Nature commentary, historians Matthew Cobb and Nathaniel Comfort argue that a letter they uncovered, which a colleague of Franklin’s wrote to Crick, implies that Franklin might not have objected to her data being passed on as part of “informal scientific exchange.” That is certainly possible.
The 1953 letter suggests that Franklin expected that Crick’s thesis adviser might discuss her research with Crick. However, Franklin’s sister believed that Franklin would have been furious, and Franklin’s department chair certainly thought that even if the report was not labeled confidential, it was improper to have shared the data. We’ll never know what Franklin would have thought, but it’s unlikely it was done with her consent.
That was the turning point. When Crick saw Franklin’s data, he realized something that Franklin had not. DNA’s structure was a double helix with the bases A, T, C and G that carry the genetic information attached to each backbone facing in opposite directions, like two staircases, one with stairs going up and the other with stairs going down. It was a crucial insight that Crick and Watson needed.
Was it wrong for Crick to use the data? I asked one of Franklin’s best friends, the scientist Don Caspar, in 2020, a year before his death. “Opportunities were presented,” he said, “and he didn’t turn his back on them. Was it immoral? It is like business with senators who cashed in on the market. If you get some useful information and you can use it to your advantage, what is the right thing to do?”
For Watson, the fact that “the report was never marked ‘confidential’ ” meant there was nothing underhanded about it.
What is clearly wrong is that Watson and Crick gave Franklin almost no credit. In their paper, they acknowledged her in one line, “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London.”
Watson and Crick could not have succeeded without Franklin’s data. Why did they not give her more credit?
Was Franklin robbed? Yes. It’s clear that her data was passed on without her knowledge, and she was given insufficient credit for it. That wasn’t proper then, and it’s not now.
Remarkably, Franklin didn’t let her loss to Watson and Crick derail her. She was already moving on to another lab in London. There she made important contributions to understanding the structure of viruses, some with the collaboration of Caspar, a young X-ray crystallographer. “I never heard her reminiscing about things from the past,” Caspar recalled. “She was always looking ahead to the future.”
We’ll never know what she would have thought since Franklin died in 1958 at age 37 from ovarian cancer. She had grown quite close to Crick and his wife in the last years of her life. Yet she probably never learned how much of her data he and Watson had used. In 1962, four years after her death, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Franklin was not eligible, as she was no longer alive.
In yet another twist, Cobb and Comfort have uncovered a draft of an article for Time magazine written in 1953, shortly after the discovery. It describes two scientific teams — Watson and Crick at the University of Cambridge and Franklin and Wilkins at King’s College — that worked independently but “linked up, confirming each other’s work from time to time, or wrestling over a common problem.”
That does not acknowledge the rampant sexism Franklin experienced, nor does it acknowledge how much was done behind her back. But as Cobb and Comfort point out, the Time story would have presented a different picture of Franklin. Rather than being portrayed as a wronged victim, she would have been seen as an important member of the team that discovered the structure of DNA.
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The Time piece was never published, so few heard of Franklin or knew of her contribution until 15 years later when Watson published his book. His sexist portrayal of Franklin enraged her friends. Crick was furious for an additional reason. “Francis was aghast,” Caspar said. “I think because it was so embarrassing that Jim had given away in the book that he and Francis had managed to get access to Rosalind’s data behind her back. It led to a temporary breakup of their friendship.”
Watson and Crick’s Nature paper buried Franklin’s contribution, but Watson’s unapologetic book revealed that they had relied on much more of her work than they initially acknowledged. It was only then that the world learned how much Watson and Crick had relied on Franklin’s work to find the structure of DNA.