Today (July 25th) would have been Rosalind Franklin's 87th birthday if she had not died of cancer on April 16, 1958 [Rosalind Franklin: Wikipedia].
Rosalind Franklin's role in the elucidation of the structure of DNA was unknown and unappreciated, outside of a small group of friends, until the publication of Jim's Watson's book The Double Helix in 1968) [see The Story of DNA (Part 1) and The Story of DNA (Part 2)]. Watson revealed to the public the role that Franklin had played in the events leading up to April 1953. The picture he painted of "Rosy" (a name she never used) was not flattering and it was widely interpreted as misogynistic (probably unfairly, since Watson treats both men and women with an equal amounts of disrespect). The legend arose that Rosalind Franklin had been cheated out of the Nobel Prize.
As it turns out, Watson only met Franklin on a few brief occasions (three?) and got most of his information from Maurice Wilkins who was not on good terms with her.
The myth of Franklin as a persecuted woman scientist was reinforced by Anne Sayre in her 1975 book Rosalind Franklin & DNA. Today it is generally acknowledged that Sayre was a bit overzealous and that Franklin was not treated badly just because she was a women. This does not mean that she wasn't treated badly. Her problems with Maurice Wilkins are well-known and they stem from a personality conflict where there's enough blame on both sides to rule out a simple persecution story.
The idea that Franklin deserves more credit for the discovery of DNA has been discussed at length in numerous books and articles since the publication of Sayre's polemical story in 1975. The most notable contributions are an appendix to Horace Judson's book The Eight Day of Creation when it was republished in 1996. In that appendix, titled In defense of Rosalind Franklin: The Myth of the wronged heroine, Judson attempts to sort out the myth from the reality. He concludes that Rosalind Franklin was unlucky and although she was close to figuring out the structure of DNA, she would not have got it on her own because she had abandoned the project entirely by the end of February 1953. Here's Judson's conclusion.
Franklin was poignantly unlucky. She had no collaborator. It's been said that Watson was her collaborator. She was stubborn—a virtue in science but with limitations, for she was too unwilling to speculate early on about the helical evidence, too set on analyzing the A form by classical mathematical means, and far too rigidly opposed to building models. She was doubly unlucky in Wilkins. Their preclusive scientific incompatibility stiffened her approach. He, shut out, had no understanding scientific auditors but Watson and Crick.(But see Klug (2003) The Discovery of the DNA double helix for a slightly different opinion. Klug was a collaborator and good friend of Franklin's after she moved to Birbeck College.)
Could she have got it first? She had not perceived that the backbones ran in opposite directions. She had not started building the B form as a double helix and so had yet to even encounter the problem of fitting the bases inside. Furthermore she was moving. Randall, mean-spiritedly, no doubt set on by Wilkins, made her agree to wind up and publish what she had on DNA, then leave the problem behind. And yet, and still, she had been so close, two half-steps away, that she saw at once that the Watson and Crick structure was essentially correct. Watson was surprised at her gracious assent.
The definitive biography—as of today—is the one published by Brenda Maddox in 2002 (Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA). Maddox sorts out the various controversies and unweaves the myth of the persecuted woman from the fact of the unappreciated and competent scientist. With the publication of Maddox's book we begin to see that Franklin's contribution was important and should have been acknowledged more openly by Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. At the same time, we see that Watson, Crick and Franklin remained (became?) friends after the structure was solved. This is not the sort of thing you expect from someone who felt wronged by the evens leading up to February 1953.
Maddox has an article in Nature on the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Watson & Crick paper in 2003 [The double helix and the "wronged heroine"]. She concludes,
Belated creditLynne Elkin wrote a brief review of the Rosalind Franklin controversy for Physics Today in 2003, after the publication of the Maddox book [Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix]. The review emphasizes all of the complex twist and turns of this complicated story. She concludes with a sound piece of advice for all those who would exploit Rosalind Franklin to their own ends.
Watson and Crick seem never to have told Franklin directly what they subsequently have said from public platforms long after her death — that they could not have discovered the double helix of DNA in the early months of 1953 without her work. This is all the more surprising in view of the close friendship that developed among the three of them — Watson, Crick and Franklin — during the remaining years of her life. During this time, she was far happier at non-sectarian Birkbeck than she ever was at King's, and led a spirited team of researchers studying tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).
From 1954 until months before her death in April 1958, she, Watson and Crick corresponded, exchanged comments on each other's work on TMV, and had much friendly contact. At Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1954 Watson offered Franklin a lift across the United States as he was driving to her destination, the California Institute of Technology. In the spring of 1956 she toured in Spain with Crick and his wife Odile and subsequently stayed with them in Cambridge when recuperating from her treatments for ovarian cancer. Characteristically, she was reticent about the nature of her illness. Crick told a friend who asked that he thought it was "something female".
In the years after leaving King's, Franklin published 17 papers, mainly on the structure of TMV (including four in Nature). She died proud of her world reputation in the research of coals, carbons and viruses. Given her determination to avoid fanciful speculation, she would never have imagined that she would be remembered as the unsung heroine of DNA. Nor could she have envisaged that King's College London, where she spent the unhappiest two years of her professional career, would dedicate a building — the Franklin–Wilkins building — in honour of her and the colleague with whom she had been barely on speaking terms.
It is important to stop demeaning Franklin's reputation, but equally important to avoid obscuring her more difficult personality traits. She should not be put on a pedestal as a symbol of the unfair treatment accorded to many women in science. Her complicated relationship with Wilkins has been treated in overly simplistic ways. Distorted accounts, which inaccurately portray the three Nobel Prize winners as well as Franklin, are unfortunate and unnecessary: There was enough glory in the work of the four to be shared by them all.