The dark lady of DNA

IN THE history of science, this is a remarkable statement: "A lot of people thought we stole the problem from her. Rosalind herself realised that she just didn't pick it up and run with it."

That was James Watson, Nobel Prize winner, when I interviewed him recently. It was somewhere between an apology and a recantation. Rosalind is the brilliant scientist Rosalind Franklin, who is widely thought to have been deprived of her due sense of glory - and the Nobel Prize besides - for the solution of "the problem". It was, perhaps, the greatest solution to the most potent problem of the 20th century - DNA. It won the Nobel for Watson, his colleague Francis Crick, and Franklin's collaborator at King's College in London, Maurice Wilkins.

Peter Medawar, the eminent scientist and writer, once said: "It is impossible to argue with someone so stupid as not to realise that Crick and Watson's discovery was the greatest of the century." Their discovery of the double- helical structure of DNA, which provided the broad answer to the question of how genes replicate and carry information, effectively began the whole new science of molecular biology. Darwinism was complete; the human genome was in sight.

At a crucial stage on the road to its discovery, four scientists were involved. Crick and Watson at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge; Wilkins and Franklin at King's College, London. Crick, Watson and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the work done nine years previously. Franklin, who died tragically young four years before the prize was awarded, has been cast variously as the unlucky one, the excluded one, the female victim of masculine bonding, the traduced intellect and "an obstinate influence" in the first edition of Watson's brilliant book The Double Helix. Women scientists the world over have seen Franklin as an icon of the fate of brilliant women in the man's world of science.

James Watson has altered both his tone and his view since the publication of The Double Helix. Franklin now appears much more sympathetically in the introduction to the latest edition of the book. Watson's change of mind is patently sincere and based on a proper assessment of her contribution. But puzzling questions will not go away. They remain as legitimate ground for debate. Was Rosalind Franklin deprived of the credit she was due because she was a woman? Was her work vital to the discovery of DNA? Or was she "The Dark Lady" - in the phrase of Maurice Wilkins.

Rosalind Franklin came from a wealthy banking and artistic family in London, which believed that girls - even clever girls who starred at the exclusive St Paul's School - were made for good works, not for hard science. She went against her father's strong will, we are told, by opting for Cambridge and science. Following that, she took up research, first in London, followed by four years in Paris. In 1951 she arrived at King's College, London. That was the beginning of the struggle and the turbulence, as well as the great achievement.

At King's, according to the dispassionate biography in The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Scientists, she had been recruited to work on biological molecules. Her director, John Randall, specifically instructed her to work on the structure of DNA. She was treated generously, given the best working equipment and the best camera operator for her X-ray photographs which were to prove so crucial.

Unfortunately - and bewilderingly, according to contemporaries - Randall did not tell her that Maurice Wilkins, a colleague at King's, a physicist who had turned away from that discipline after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was also working on DNA. Neither knew the job definition of the other, nor did colleagues at King's. Misunderstandings and territorial clashes were inevitable. Both Wilkins and Franklin described that time as the unhappiest in their working lives. The friction seems to have been exasperated by a personality clash which, it is claimed, went beyond gender. There is the slow, cautious Wilkins and

the fierce, quick Franklin - the concensus-seeker and the stubborn individualist. Yet Aaron Klug, a fellow scientist who knew both of them, describes Franklin as "non-competitive", thus kicking away the prop that usually accounts for rivalry and antagonism in small, enclosed worlds, especially when a great achievement is imminent. In the commentaries on Franklin's contribution since her death, there have been those who questioned the actual quality of her ability. Klug makes no such qualifications. In a radio programme on Franklin, written and presented some years ago by Lewis Wolpert, he said: "There is no doubt that if Crick and Watson had not intervened, she would have got the structure." Crick himself called her "a much better experimentalist" than Watson or himself. Crick acknowledged in that same radio programme that "we could not have built the model [of the Double Helix] without her data". This seems to me to be crucial evidence. It was data of Franklin's which Maurice Wilkins innocently showed to James Watson which specifically and immediately triggered the solution for the Cambridge team.

Part of the trouble was that, at King's, Wilkins and Franklin were not a team. Furthermore, Crick and Watson in Cambridge had behind them the Cavendish Laboratory where the Braggs, father and son - Nobel Prize-winners both - had opened up the field of X-ray diffraction and had a collection of people skilled in X-ray crystallography which was a vital stepping stone on the way to the solution of DNA.

Sir Lawrence Bragg could lose his temper with Crick, but, at critical times, he supported both the brilliant and exasperating Crick and the very young, very ambitous American James Watson. Rosalind Franklin had no comparable support. Indeed, Maurice Wilkins was much closer to Crick than he was to Franklin. This has fuelled the notion that this was a man's world, opposed to the contribution of women, especially a threateningly clever woman.

In this argument, detail is what matters, and it is complicated. But the distinction between Franklin and the men is that Rosalind Franklin insisted that there was no helical structure to DNA for a fatally long time. She ruled it out - a position not taken by the other three. Moreover, Franklin did not approve of the Cambridge teams' use of models, initially she had little time for what she saw as their rather lightweight talents. When Crick and Watson showed her an early model - of a three-chained Helix - Crick later said: "We didn't know as much as she did. She dismissed the whole thing as nonsense and she was quite right."

It is at this critical stage, when the final model was coming into view, that Rosalind Franklin's relationship with the three men becomes of the greatest importance. Some believe that her purity of application and her utter scrupulousness became a handicap. Others see a lack of communication, and put it down as much to character as to circumstances. When I talked to Richard Dawkins, he recalled the anti-female academic world of the Fifties, and put his finger on what could be a central element in the plot: "I suppose the worst of it is the way the scientific society treated Rosalind Franklin. I do not mean the way that Watson and Crick treated her. I mean the way she was not even allowed to go into the Common Room in her own institution, and could not talk shop with colleagues."

It was this isolation that meant her contribution could not be parleyed into something bigger. Conversation with colleagues is essential to working out scientific problems, and Rosalind Franklin was not included in the conversations. "You've got to know the other people," James Watson told me when I talked to him for On Giants' Shoulders. "You better know what those arguments are against you. It's hard to be successful in science unless you talk to your opponents."

Or was it just that she was a loner? Watson's explanation for her lack of contact with others is less to do with laboratory politics and the customs of academic life than with the character of Franklin herself. He maintains that she did not get on well with most people who worked around her. He points out that not only did she isolate herself from Maurice Wilkins, but she didn't befriend any of the other 14 women working at King's either: "I think she chiefly suffered from an unbending personality which could not make friends easily," he says.

James Watson's most emphatic reason for her failure to get there first was, he told me, that: "She didn't live DNA. In fact, she was prepared to stop working on it. She should have stuck with DNA. She probably didn't think DNA all the time the way I did. To me there wasn't anything else." This fits in with what Professor Evelyn Fox Keller at MIT told me when I interviewed her for On Giants' Shoulders. She is a great admirer of Franklin, whom she sees as "a kind of heroic scientist. She really believed in doing the work for its own sake. It is a tragedy that she lost out on the official history of the subject." But she agrees with Watson that it was the others that carried the day.

Crick and Watson were impressed by Franklin's generosity when she saw they had solved the great problem. She went on to become a good friend of Francis Crick and his family in the few years before her death, at the age of 37, from ovarian cancer.

In Lewis Wolpert's radio programme, Maurice Wilkins says one reason she was not acknowledged properly at the time was that they did not know what she had done. It was found later in her notebooks, but it had formed part of the discussion. There is always give and take in science, but in Franklin's case it appears to be that it was always her information, freely given, which helped others. There is little evidence of others helping her. In a way, her rigour of mind was her worst enemy because she refused to accept the simpler helical explanation until it was too late. But, with devastating irony, it was evidence she herself produced which proved the vital clue for the final model built by Crick and Watson.

Her spirit will not rest; she raises too many problems and questions. The place of women at that time in a scientific workforce, the interaction of character and research, and of personality on the politics of the scientific process - inflexibility and obsession versus adaptability and a more objective pattern of thought. Rosalind Franklin, the Dark Lady of DNA, may have many reincarnations.

'On Giants' Shoulders', Melvyn Bragg's study of the personalities and work of 12 prominent scientists, from Archimedes to Crick and Watson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 12.99.

the fierce, quick Franklin - the concensus-seeker and the stubborn individualist. Yet Aaron Klug, a fellow scientist who knew both of them, describes Franklin as "non-competitive", thus kicking away the prop that usually accounts for rivalry and antagonism in small, enclosed worlds, especially when a great achievement is imminent. In the commentaries on Franklin's contribution since her death, there have been those who questioned the actual quality of her ability. Klug makes no such qualifications. In a radio programme on Franklin, written and presented some years ago by Lewis Wolpert, he said: "There is no doubt that if Crick and Watson had not intervened, she would have got the structure." Crick himself called her "a much better experimentalist" than Watson or himself. Crick acknowledged in that same radio programme that "we could not have built the model [of the Double Helix] without her data". This seems to me to be crucial evidence. It was data of Franklin's which Maurice Wilkins innocently showed to James Watson which specifically and immediately triggered the solution for the Cambridge team.

Part of the trouble was that, at King's, Wilkins and Franklin were not a team. Furthermore, Crick and Watson in Cambridge had behind them the Cavendish Laboratory where the Braggs, father and son - Nobel Prize-winners both - had opened up the field of X-ray diffraction and had a collection of people skilled in X-ray crystallography which was a vital stepping stone on the way to the solution of DNA.

Sir Lawrence Bragg could lose his temper with Crick, but, at critical times, he supported both the brilliant and exasperating Crick and the very young, very ambitous American James Watson. Rosalind Franklin had no comparable support. Indeed, Maurice Wilkins was much closer to Crick than he was to Franklin. This has fuelled the notion that this was a man's world, opposed to the contribution of women, especially a threateningly clever woman.

In this argument, detail is what matters, and it is complicated. But the distinction between Franklin and the men is that Rosalind Franklin insisted that there was no helical structure to DNA for a fatally long time. She ruled it out - a position not taken by the other three. Moreover, Franklin did not approve of the Cambridge teams' use of models, initially she had little time for what she saw as their rather lightweight talents. When Crick and Watson showed her an early model - of a three-chained Helix - Crick later said: "We didn't know as much as she did. She dismissed the whole thing as nonsense and she was quite right."

It is at this critical stage, when the final model was coming into view, that Rosalind Franklin's relationship with the three men becomes of the greatest importance. Some believe that her purity of application and her utter scrupulousness became a handicap. Others see a lack of communication, and put it down as much to character as to circumstances. When I talked to Richard Dawkins, he recalled the anti-female academic world of the Fifties, and put his finger on what could be a central element in the plot: "I suppose the worst of it is the way the scientific society treated Rosalind Franklin. I do not mean the way that Watson and Crick treated her. I mean the way she was not even allowed to go into the Common Room in her own institution, and could not talk shop with colleagues."

It was this isolation that meant her contribution could not be parleyed into something bigger. Conversation with colleagues is essential to working out scientific problems, and Rosalind Franklin was not included in the conversations. "You've got to know the other people," James Watson told me when I talked to him for On Giants' Shoulders. "You better know what those arguments are against you. It's hard to be successful in science unless you talk to your opponents."

Or was it just that she was a loner? Watson's explanation for her lack of contact with others is less to do with laboratory politics and the customs of academic life than with the character of Franklin herself. He maintains that she did not get on well with most people who worked around her. He points out that not only did she isolate herself from Maurice Wilkins, but she didn't befriend any of the other 14 women working at King's either: "I think she chiefly suffered from an unbending personality which could not make friends easily," he says.

James Watson's most emphatic reason for her failure to get there first was, he told me, that: "She didn't live DNA. In fact, she was prepared to stop working on it. She should have stuck with DNA. She probably didn't think DNA all the time the way I did. To me there wasn't anything else." This fits in with what Professor Evelyn Fox Keller at MIT told me when I interviewed her for On Giants' Shoulders. She is a great admirer of Franklin, whom she sees as "a kind of heroic scientist. She really believed in doing the work for its own sake. It is a tragedy that she lost out on the official history of the subject." But she agrees with Watson that it was the others that carried the day.

Crick and Watson were impressed by Franklin's generosity when she saw they had solved the great problem. She went on to become a good friend of Francis Crick and his family in the few years before her death, at the age of 37, from ovarian cancer.

In Lewis Wolpert's radio programme, Maurice Wilkins says one reason she was not acknowledged properly at the time was that they did not know what she had done. It was found later in her notebooks, but it had formed part of the discussion. There is always give and take in science, but in Franklin's case it appears to be that it was always her information, freely given, which helped others. There is little evidence of others helping her. In a way, her rigour of mind was her worst enemy because she refused to accept the simpler helical explanation until it was too late. But, with devastating irony, it was evidence she herself produced which proved the vital clue for the final model built by Crick and Watson.

Her spirit will not rest; she raises too many problems and questions. The place of women at that time in a scientific workforce, the interaction of character and research, and of personality on the politics of the scientific process - inflexibility and obsession versus adaptability and a more objective pattern of thought. Rosalind Franklin, the Dark Lady of DNA, may have many reincarnations.

'On Giants' Shoulders', Melvyn Bragg's study of the personalities and work of 12 prominent scientists, from Archimedes to Crick and Watson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 12.99.

James Watson and Francis Crick, who, with Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for DNA work

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