More Recent Comments

Friday, February 17, 2017

Did Rosalind Franklin produce the first X-ray diffraction images of DNA?

There's an interesting video of ten famous women scientists at Interesting S_Word: [Top 10 Female Scientists of History]. The image of Rosalind Franklin caught my eye (see right).

Perhaps I'm nitpicking but fake news is all the rage these days so I think we'd better be extra careful to present real facts rather than alternative facts. In that spirit, I'll mention two things.
  1. This is a photo of physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968). The video has been corrected in other versions (see below).
  2. Rosalind Franklin did not produce or publish the first X-ray diffraction photos of DNA. I know of three people who produced images before her. William Astbury published X-ray diffraction photos of DNA in the 1930s. The analysis of those photos revealed that DNA was a repetitive structure with a distance of about .34 nm between layers. This data was well known to Maurice Wilkins, Franklin's boss, when he took his own X-ray diffraction photos several years before Franklin joined his lab. His graduate student, Raymond Gosling, also collected images before Franklin arrived. (Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Watson & Crick.)
This may sound like nitpicking but why publish information that's demonstrably false? Rosalind Franklin made a major contribution to the study of DNA structure by developing techniques to collect X-ray diffraction images that were far superior to any that had been collected previously. Furthermore, she was able to set up conditions that distinguish between the A- and B-forms of DNA, thus avoiding a blurred image of the two structures together.

She did careful measurements that defined the unit cell and established many of the features of DNA. Watson & Crick, who were also experts in X-ray diffraction, were able to use this information plus other information about the biology of DNA to construct an accurate model—the famous double helix.

There's no reason to distort Rosalind Franklin's contribution by saying she took the first images when that's clearly not true.

The story of Rosalind Franklin is complicated. I've tried to write an honest summary at: [Rosalind Franklin's Birthday]; [The Story of DNA (Part 2)]; and [The Franklin & Gosling Nature paper (1953)].


Unknown said...

Was Wilkins really Franklin's boss? I thought he believed he was intended to be her boss, but the director of the lab (his boss) had other ideas.


CrocodileChuck said...

"Furthermore, she was able to set up conditions that distinguish between the A- and B-forms of DNA, thus avoiding a blurred image of the two structures together"

Watson & Crick were the 1st researchers to illuminate the differences between these, not Franklin.

& Crick was the 1st to understand that the DNA strands were anti-parallel.

Confused said...

Completely unrelated, but Nathaniel Jeanson, the "famous" Harvard graduate from AIG, has been actually responding to question on Facebook about both his work, and the peer review process of the Tomkins papers. He also accused Glenn Williamson of fraud. I know all of you have discussed those papers, so you might take a peek, maybe even try to have a conversation with him.

Faizal Ali said...

Jeez, why did you point me to that? That clown makes Otangelo Grasso seem terse and well-informed.

Confused said...

Because Im a bastard and I know people like to punish themselves by reading these things just like me.

Gordon Davisson said...

Larry, I find it's really bugging me that the photo of "Rosalind Franklin" (w/caption) shows up above the fold (i.e. in the main listing of your blog), but the correction (it's actually Lise Meitner) isn't visible until you view the full blog entry. D'you suppose you could humor me and attach a corrective note to the image itself?

Larry Moran said...

Good idea! Thanks!


Arlin said...

There is very misleading version of this story circulating on facebook right now. See

Please everyone, take a moment to enlighten your friends about this.

judmarc said...

Hadn't seen that before. Some small items of partial clarification in the comments, though Facebook comments are not the place I personally would look to for thorough elucidation of a complex story.