She who Photographed the Double-Helix

By Laura Boness

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the building block of life, as it contains the codes that decide whether we are short or tall, and have blue instead of brown eyes. But who is responsible for discovering how DNA forms and transfers this information? 

In April 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick changed the course of biological sciences when they announced that DNA formed in double helices. However, they might not have made this discovery at this time if it weren’t for the work of another scientist, Rosalind Franklin, who also studied DNA.

Born in 1920, Rosalind is remembered as a brilliant chemist. She decided to become a scientist at an early age and, when she turned 18, went to Cambridge to take the entrance exam for physics and chemistry. She hadn’t finished high school yet, but both Lucy Cavendish and Newnhan colleges offered her places. Rosalind enrolled in Newnham in 1938 and graduated in 1941.

Life after uni
Rosalind was studying her PhD at Cambridge when World War II began. Her research on the nature of coal and charcoal and how to use them efficiently got her a job in Paris, where she joined the research team at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat in 1945.

Five years later, in 1950, Rosalind returned to England and worked in John Randall’s laboratory in King’s College London. There she met Maurice Wilkins, a physicist and molecular biologist who would also play an important part in the discovery of DNA’s structure.

Rosalind studied X-ray diffraction in France and used that knowledge to determine the atomic and molecular structures of crystals. To do this, she aimed a beam of X-rays at the crystal. The crystal’s atoms caused the beam to bend away from its original path and, by measuring the angle and intensity of each beam, she produced a three-dimensional image of the atoms within the crystal.

Rosalind was supposed to use this information to help Wilkins in his DNA research, but he treated her as an assistant, not as an equal. Six months after her arrival, they had very little to do with each other.

Who saw it first?
Over in the Cavendish laboratory at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick were working on a model of DNA. They were using all the information available, including new research in the field.

When working with Wilkins and Randall, Rosalind captured an X-ray diffraction of DNA—a picture now known as photograph 51—that ended up in Watson and Crick’s lab. That image was used by Watson and Crick to develop the first chemical model of DNA.

Watson, Crick and Wilkins announced their discovery in April 1953 and published the results in the famous journal Nature.

Rosalind also concluded that DNA had two helices, her research was also published, but she transferred to Birbeck College, where, as per suggestion of John Desmond Bernal, turned her attention to the structure of plant viruses, such as the tobacco mosaic virus.

The woman who photographed and accurately described the structure of DNA, also investigated the polio virus, and, hadn’t she died prematurely of ovarian cancer in 1956, we are pretty sure she would have surprised the world.

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The heated debate
So, who discovered DNA’s double-helix first?

There is still debate over whether Rosalind should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA as well. But Rosalind died in 1958 and Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962—the award was only given to living scientists at the time.

Is it time to say that DNA’s double-helix structure was discovered by four scientists—Crick, Franklin, Watson and Wilkins—and not just by Watson and Crick? What do you think?