The Unseen Story

Crick and Watson’s discovery was in large part informed by the work of Rosalind Franklin, a female scientist who died of ovarian cancer in 1958. Franklin and Maurice Wilkins both ran DNA research projects in John Randall’s lab at King’s College in London. Because Franklin arrived at the lab while Wilkins was on vacation, he assumed that she was an assistant when he returned — not a surprising assumption, given the rarity of female scientists in the early 1950s. The two continued to butt heads for the duration of their time together in the lab.

By 1953, Franklin had made several key discoveries about the structure of DNA, using a unique X-ray technique she had perfected to make crystallographic photos of the molecules. Unbeknownst to Franklin, Wilkins shared her data with Watson and Crick, at Cambridge University. Although Crick and Watson were close to the double-helix discovery in their own right, the addition of Franklin’s data helped them pull ahead in the race, and they published their findings in the journal Nature in April 1953, with a footnote acknowledging “having been stimulated by a general knowledge of Franklin’s ‘unpublished’ contribution.” Franklin published a supplementary article in the same issue.

While stories since then have played up the controversy between the teams, Watson and Crick’s scoop was in part due to Franklin’s more cautious approach to science. She preferred to build and test many small models, as opposed to Watson and Crick’s larger scale molecular models, and was known for wanting to gather sufficient evidence before claiming something had been proven. The science was always more important than the credit for Franklin.

Ultimately, the fraught relationship with Wilkins and pervasive sexism (Franklin wasn’t allowed in the college’s dining room) led Franklin to leave King’s College, but she had to promise to stop researching DNA. She returned to her previous research subject — the structure of coal and charcoal — and her discoveries there laid the groundwork for the field of high-strength carbon fibers. She also turned her attention to viruses, publishing 17 papers in five years and creating the foundation for the study of structural virology.