Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rosalind Franklin's Birthday

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.

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.
(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.)

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 credit

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.
Lynne 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.
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.

13 comments :

  1. ... died of cancer on April 16, 1958... The legend arose that Rosalind Franklin had been cheated out of the Nobel Prize.

    The Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA was awarded in 1962, and they don't award to dead people anyway.

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    1. Still, Watson was unfair to use Rosaline's data.

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  2. I made the assumption that everyone knew that but, you're right, I should have mentioned in in my posting.

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  3. I usually find fault with most Franklin articles, but I must admit I thought Moran's article was a good summary with no major errors.

    I would add that I still do not believe that Franklin knew in April 1953 how much of her data had influenced WAtson and Crick, but also agree with Bob Olby's suggestion that if/when she figured it out, she was clever enought to think that friendship with Crick was more important than arguing about the past. However, I think she had only a cordial professional relationship with Watson, in contrast to her close personal and professional relationship with Crick.

    To set the record straight, I was investigating and lecturing on Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix before Brenda Maddox started on her book. However I simultaneously had to be teaching 9 courses a year and do my research without support-- because my University would only support me for biology research and, in another case, because I had no formal training in The History of Science. I was exhausted in 2002,diagnosed with cancer, and then sustained major additional problems from the radiation. These slowed my writing progress to a snail's pace, but I still write and after Klug, can deliver one of the best balanced lectures on the topic.

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  4. lynne osman elkin says,

    I would add that I still do not believe that Franklin knew in April 1953 how much of her data had influenced WAtson and Crick, but also agree with Bob Olby's suggestion that if/when she figured it out, she was clever enought to think that friendship with Crick was more important than arguing about the past.

    I agree that Franklin probably didn't know exactly how much of her data were known to Watson & Crick. However, the importance of that data has been exaggerated. After, all Pauling was able to build a model without it and in time would have got a better one. Everyone needs to remember that Franklin was about to publish everything she knew (April, 1953) so Watson & Crick only had a two month head start.

    Franklin was well aware of the fact that she was about to make public all of her data and still was not close to solving the structure. She was professional enough to realize that Watson & Crick had done something that she could not do.

    However, I think she had only a cordial professional relationship with Watson, in contrast to her close personal and professional relationship with Crick.

    That pretty much describes everyone's relationship with Watson, don't you think? Watson does not suffer fools. Any kind of relationship, even a "cordial" one, says a lot about what he thinks of you.

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  5. Unfortunately she didn’t have chance to get the ultimate award for her work. We have at least Rosalind Franklin Awards.

    http://dnaencyclopedia.com/dna-structure/rosalind-franklin

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  6. They published the paper based on her x-rays without including her as one of the authors or telling her they had used her data. If you weigh the scientific contribution of all parties, the two major contributors would be Crick and Franklin. Wilkins contributed nothing to the original finding and Watson was a zoologist who happened to be in the room when Crick made his observations.

    All you have to do is read Watson's book to realize he was a sexist pig who never developed beyond adolescence.

    Dam the rules, given the way she was treated, she should be awarded the Nobel Prize posthumously just to set the record straight.

    Dam the rule giving how she was trea

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  7. anonymous says,

    They published the paper based on her x-rays without including her as one of the authors or telling her they had used her data.

    Rosalind Franklin saw the model before publication and her approval was a very important part of the process. She knew that the model was based, in part, on her data. She also knew, and regretted, her vocal public pronouncements that DNA could not be helical.

    The various authors arranged for their papers to be published together in Nature. The Franklin & Gosling paper contained all of her data up to that point and she showed how it related to the Watson and Crick model. Similarly, the the Wilson, Stokes, and Wilkins paper gave some of the history of the work and demonstrated that the prime mover behind the work was Wilkins.

    In addition to publishing back-to-back papers with Franklin, Watson & Crick thanked her in their paper and referenced her accompanying paper in theirs. They also stated clearly that their model was based partly on published data from Franklin.

    If you weigh the scientific contribution of all parties, the two major contributors would be Crick and Franklin. Wilkins contributed nothing to the original finding and Watson was a zoologist who happened to be in the room when Crick made his observations.

    Nonsense. Watson was responsible for discovering base pairing and he was an expect on interpreting helical structures on X-ray diffraction photos (he worked on the structure of TMV). Wilkins was the person in the group who first started working on fiber diffraction of DNA. He was responsible for hiring Franklin to work on the problem and for initiating the collaboration with the group at Cambridge.

    Watson was not a zoologist. He was a member of the phage group with all of the advantages that such membership brought to the problem. Crick, did not have those contacts.

    Franklin deserves more credit and it would have been a tough call if she had been alive when the Nobel Prizes were given out. However, it doesn't help when people like you perpetuate myths and falsehoods surrounding the discovery.

    Franklin was not a saint. She never appreciated the importance of DNA and the value of modeling. At the time when Watson & Crick were working on the final model, Franklin was packing up and preparing to leave for another job. She did not think that solving the structure of DNA was anything like "discovering the secret of life."

    Also, let's not forget that Rosalind Franklin remained friends with Watson & Crick until her death. She did not behave as though she had been wronged.

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  8. Part 1 (split in three parts for post length limits)
    --------------------------------------------------

    "Rosalind Franklin saw the model before publication and her approval was a very important part of the process. She knew that the model was based, in part, on her data. She also knew, and regretted, her vocal public pronouncements that DNA could not be helical."

    She had also said publicly that it WAS helical once she had the data to prove that! Wilkins helical pronouncements were based on seeing the A-B form superposition. Franklin was more careful. Without her data, Watson and Crick would likely still have been building silly models as wrong as their phosphates on the outside. Watson has been mythologized beyond recognition of the man, and his corrosive portrait of Franklin is a clear indication of either a delusional mind, or a clever mind with a purpose (to defame).

    History is slowly being rewritten on this tragic and ugly chapter in modern science. Today, if someone had appropriated another's data without their knowledge to gain prominent publication, it would be a scandal. That it was not, is as clear an indication of the oppression under which Franklin lived as anything.

    "The various authors arranged for their papers to be published together in Nature. The Franklin & Gosling paper contained all of her data up to that point and she showed how it related to the Watson and Crick model. Similarly, the the Wilson, Stokes, and Wilkins paper gave some of the history of the work and demonstrated that the prime mover behind the work was Wilkins. "

    The Watson and Crick model was centered on her data! Her data, from the photo, and from lectures and papers circulated to Watson and Crick (by Max Perutz), laid out the helical nature, the dimensions, phosphates outside - honestly, the base pairing was all that was left, and initially they even got that wrong (Watson paired like-with-like!) until others clarified Chargaff's rules for them. That they appropriated her data, which made ALL the difference, and then left her to have a data only paper is just ugly. It would never happen in modern science.

    ***
    Some evidence:
    "Conclusion: Big helix in several chains, phosphates on outside, phosphate-phosphate inter-helical bonds disrupted by water. Phosphate links available to proteins."
    — Rosalind Franklin
    Lecture Notes of Franklin. Headed 'Colloquium November 1951'

    "The results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing probably 2, 3 or 4 coaxial nucleic acid chains per helical unit and having the phosphate groups near the outside."
    — Rosalind Franklin
    Official Report, submitted in Feb 1952

    the examples go on and on
    ***



    "In addition to publishing back-to-back papers with Franklin, Watson & Crick thanked her in their paper and referenced her accompanying paper in theirs. "

    The thieves THANKED her. How generous of them.

    "They also stated clearly that their model was based partly on published data from Franklin. "

    Yes, which is true, if by "partly" you mean "almost entirely dependent on and having generated all the inspiration".


    "Watson was responsible for discovering base pairing and he was an expect on interpreting helical structures on X-ray diffraction photos (he worked on the structure of TMV)."

    Watson first got it WRONG, pairing like to like. And the only reason he and Crick (the far brighter of the two - look at what they did after DNA structure) were that close was from Franklin's data that put enormous constraints on the modeling (helical, dimensions, phosphates outside, therefore bases inside, etc).

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  9. I'm an x-ray crystallographer, and, let me tell you, if someone had "obtained" my data that I worked hard to get, that was, in fact, the first time in science history that anyone had obtained such data, and, although I could have solved it using my own (more careful) methods, they had a faster method, and then they used my data (which they were not even qualified to produce, nd which I did not know they had) to construct the model before I could, published the structure from it in Nature, got a Nobel, slimed my character and intelligence after my death, well, I'd be upset to say the least.

    This is a clear cut case of unethical behavior, opportunism, scientific misconduct, and academic espionage.

    I'm going to post a series of counterpoints to what has been said on this blog defending Watson and Crick. But for anyone interested in forming their own opinion, read "The Dark Lady of DNA". I am convinced the facts will help dispel the mythology.

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  10. Part 2 (split in three parts for post length limits)
    --------------------------------------------------

    "Wilkins was the person in the group who first started working on fiber diffraction of DNA. He was responsible for hiring Franklin to work on the problem and for initiating the collaboration with the group at Cambridge."

    Wrong. Randall hired her and redirected her. She was a PEER of Wilkins, not his staff. This distortion is part of the entire lie that has grown around this. Collaboration? I guess that is why Randall exploded with rage when he found out about Watson and Cricks work? There was no collaboration! This was a competition!

    "Franklin deserves more credit and it would have been a tough call if she had been alive when the Nobel Prizes were given out."

    Tough call? These guys stole her data and still stumbled to the model. I'm sure lots of scientists would love to have access to data critical to a nobel level problem, data that they were unqualified to generate in particular!

    "However, it doesn't help when people like you perpetuate myths and falsehoods surrounding the discovery."

    The primary myth is the historical narrative on this. Franklin's data was appropriated by two scoundrels who used it for their gain to her diminishment. They would never have gotten there without it (believe me, if anyone could do it from first principles, it was Linus Pauling, not these chuckleheads who still messed it up several times even WITH her data). They took the glory for her work, then Watson slandered her in his vile book after he death (a nasty bit of cowardice).

    "Franklin was not a saint. "

    Saint has nothing to do with it. Her data. Their theft. They get credit, and slime her after death. This one is pretty cut and dried. It was scientific misconduct, but God forbid the DNA Deities get the analysis they deserve.

    "She never appreciated the importance of DNA and the value of modeling."

    Honestly, she is the better scientist for it. Without her data, Watson and Crick were lost in the woods. She mocked modeling for a very good reason - without enough data, you could get things VERY wrong. They were reckless, and made huge blunders. She was careful, and acquired data that they could not, which they stole, and then finally used modeling to get it.

    Was she TOO careful? How can science be too careful? Only in the mentality of a "race" can that be the case. If she had lived by the practices of modern science, she would have not been the victim of academic espionage, would have kept quite about her data until much later, and very likely would have figured out the structure. This would have come a few years later, perhaps, but it would have been proven far more carefully, and would have the advantage for future generations that see this ugly tale as having been done ethically.

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  11. Part 3 (split in three parts for post length limits)
    --------------------------------------------------

    "At the time when Watson & Crick were working on the final model, Franklin was packing up and preparing to leave for another job. She did not think that solving the structure of DNA was anything like "discovering the secret of life.""

    Why was she leaving? Could she have been utterly demoralized? As Crick wrote: "I'm afraid we always used to adopt--let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her". And that was the HONEST answer, and likely the tip of the iceberg.

    And how do you claim she didn't appreciate it? In her Nature paper she wrote:
    "We wish to discuss a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid. (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biologic interest. "


    "Also, let's not forget that Rosalind Franklin remained friends with Watson & Crick until her death. She did not behave as though she had been wronged."

    She never even knew they used her data! Have you read the biographies? And even today, scientists are leery to estrange the powerful. She was a female jew in a VERY discriminatory environment. We have NO idea how she might have calculated things. I'm writing this anonymously because I am untenured and to challenge the current mythology of Watson and Crick is not safe. And I am a male Christina in America! Franklin was no saint (thank God she was a human woman), but she was carrying a burden none of us now understands.


    This is not about feminism (although a woman was definitely made to suffer for her gender in this tale, as were all women scientists at the time and until very recently, and even now in many places still deal with discrimination), it's not about Franklin's character. It's about a clear instance of scientific misconduct at the highest of levels, that led to the canonization of the culprits, some of whom then smeared the reputation of the victim after her death.

    As I said above, history will judge this very differently than the current mythology (which is eroding fast as that generation dies off). It is very tragic that modern molecular biology has at its birth such unfortunate human behavior.

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  12. anonymous writes,

    History is slowly being rewritten on this tragic and ugly chapter in modern science.

    There was a time when history was being revised in order to portray Rosalind Franklin as a victim of fraud but that time has passed.

    We now have a much less hysterical view of the actual events than we had immediately following Anne Sayre's book in 1975.

    The bottom line is that Franklin would never have discovered the structure of DNA without Watson & Crick because she was about to abandon her work on the project. She knew that in 1953. She knew that if Pauling had come up with a better model she would have got no credit at all and that's what almost happened.

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