Another dent in the Rosalind Franklin myth

A comment on a recent editorial discussing Raymond Gosling:
In this article, I (the author) followed multiple sources in referring to 'Photo 51' as the work of Rosalind Franklin. However, medical geneticist Jim Lupski raised a query about the accuracy of the attribution, having received correspondence from Jim Watson which mentioned in passing that Ray Gosling had taken the photo.

I put the query to Gosling, who confirms that he was indeed 'Photo 51' photographer:

'It was part of the program that Rosalind and I were carrying out to check the effect of the humidity on the crystallization of DNA. This was the 51st of that program, and I was the one who took that particular diffraction pattern.'

Thanks to Jim Lupski for bringing the inaccuracy to my attention, to Ray Gosling for providing further information, and to Jim Watson for confirming that this was his understanding of events.

Note that Gosling was originally Wilkins' graduate student. The two were taking X-ray photographs of DNA before Franklin ever became involved. Additional background:

Wilkins began using optical spectroscopy to study DNA in the late 1940s. In 1950 he and Gosling obtained the first clearly crystalline X-ray diffraction patterns from DNA fibres, and Alec Stokes suggested that the patterns indicated that DNA was helical (spiral) in structure. [source]

Franklin's fellowship proposal called for her to work on x-ray diffraction studies of proteins in solution. However, there was a shift in research priorities after Maurice Wilkins, the assistant director of Randall's lab, began working with an unusually pure sample of DNA obtained from Rudolf Signer. Excited about the possibilities, Wilkins suggested to Randall that Franklin's expertise might be better applied to this promising DNA research. Randall agreed; he wrote to Franklin in November 1950, explaining the change of plan, and stated that she and graduate student Raymond Gosling would be the only staff doing crystallographic studies of DNA. Randall did not mention Wilkins' serious interest in DNA, nor did he tell Wilkins the details of the letter. These omissions soon generated misunderstandings between Wilkins and Franklin--Franklin assumed that the x-ray diffraction studies of DNA would be her project alone; Wilkins assumed that she was joining the loosely organized research team ("Randall's Circus") at the biophysics lab, as the expert on crystallography. When Wilkins continued working on DNA and suggested that he and Franklin collaborate, she resented what she regarded as interference. [source]

Rosalind Franklin has become such a symbolic figure that it is now hard to separate facts from myths. However, in the rush to see Franklin as wronged, it needs to be recalled that Wilkins was a senior independent scientist, had laid a lot of groundwork for the DNA work, and had obtained the actual DNA samples Franklin went on to take x-ray pictures of. All this was then essentially taken off him by the unit head (Randall) and given to Franklin. So it could be argued with a good deal of justification that the DNA project at King's was very much Wilkins' baby, and would not have existed for Franklin to take forward without years of Wilkins' groundwork. [source]

“To think that Rosy had all the 3D data for 9 months & wouldn’t fit a helix to it and there was I taking her word for it that the data was anti-helical. Christ,” Dr. Wilkins wrote, musing on how close he might have come to making the discovery himself. [source]


Anonymous said...

Point of reference: the unhinged feminist cartoon fantasy version.

Anonymous said...

In general I am prepared to discount female scientists, except in the case of full blooded Ashkenazi Jewesses like Franklin, in the event of an academic dispute I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. A non-trivial fraction of the female members of the tribe have proven intellectually competent, for example her, her, her, her and her.

Nanonymous said...

True, Franklin demonstrated plenty of cluelessness at times but let's not get carried away: her experimental contribution was critical.

"I was the one who took that particular diffraction pattern"

Ir really does not matter that much who put an X-ray film past the sample, waited a bit and then developed it. What matters is who made the samples to diffract well. Everyone agrees it was Franklin.

"Wilkins ... had obtained the actual DNA samples Franklin went on to take x-ray pictures of."

"Had obtained" means actually this: he was given the high molecular weight DNA samples by Rudolf Singer, a Swiss researcher whose lab developed methods of making very intact calf thymus DNA. Wilkins himself had absolutely no idea how to purify high quality DNA.

Wilkins said, as quoted by Horas Judson in comprehensive "The Eights Day of Creation": "I faced the fact that we would have to go very much further into x-ray-diffraction techniques, in which I was not really qualified. That's why we hired Rosalind Franklin." (p.79 of the expanded edition, 1996 CSH Press).

There is much more in that book. Basically, Wilkins was totally clueless ("Rosalind Franklin put me on the wrong track. She said the structure couldn't be helical." Well, hello, you have seen every piece of experimental data of any importance - why couldn't you draw your own conclusions if you are so smart? ("Basically, I don't think the problem of DNA was so difficult" - ibid. LOL!)

Gosling deserved the Nobel infinitely more than Wilkins ever did. Even though every indication is that "Rosy" was an evil nightmare in the lab, her experimental work was top notch. And if she only were as smart as Crick (she most definitely wasn't), she would have figured the structure all by herself.