The story of Rosalind Franklin and photo 51

The most famous photo in the history of genetics wasn’t generated by Watson and Crick, but that didn’t stop them from using it to solve the structure of DNA!

The story of Rosalind Franklin and photo 51
Franklin RE and Gosling RG. 1953. Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/171740a0

While they tend to get all of the credit for this structure, 3 papers were published back-to-back on this topic in April of 1953:

1) Watson and Crick’s has a single, hand-drawn, 3D structure of DNA.

2) Wilkins' includes a blurry diffraction pattern.

3) Franklin and Gosling's has the pristine diffraction pattern of DNA known as Photo 51. Their analysis showed that the structure is helical, it's double stranded, and the bases face inward with the phosphate backbone on the outside.

So, why are there 3 papers?

In the early 1950’s, scientists were coming around to the idea that DNA was the genetic material, but the publication of the Hershey-Chase experiment in 1952 removed all doubt.

Soon after, Linus Pauling, an American structural biologist, published a triple-helical structure of DNA (with the bases facing outward).

Unfortunately for Pauling, his structure was based on flawed data but this put the teams in the UK on notice.

Watson and Crick were at Cambridge while Wilkins, Franklin and Gosling were at King’s College London.

Wilkins did much of the early work generating x-ray diffraction patterns of DNA, but it was Franklin and her PhD student, Gosling, who perfected the art.

In May of 1952, Gosling generated photo 51 of B-DNA, but Franklin was more interested in studying A-DNA.

So, photo 51 wasn’t revisited until she decided to leave King’s.

Since Gosling was transferring to Wilkins to complete his PhD, photo 51 was shared with him and he in turn shared it with Watson.

Realizing this fixed all of their problems, he and Crick completed the model for their structure of DNA, culminating in the publication of all 3 papers in 1953.

Unfortunately, Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 and Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel in 1962.

The story of photo 51 is incredible, but what’s even more incredible is that Franklin’s contribution was nearly forgotten.

This changed when Watson’s misogyny got the better of him.

In his 1968 memoir, he composed a very unkind depiction of Franklin (He apologized in a later edition).

This sparked renewed interest in her and corrected portrayals of her and her work have been published:

She was a pioneer of x-ray crystallography.

She provided the key diffraction pattern for the structure of DNA.

She resolved the structure of RNA in Tobacco Mosaic Virus.

And, prior to her death, she worked on polio virus.

Her collaborator, Aaron Klug, finished this project and was awarded the Nobel Prize, in part, for his crystallography work.

Though short a Nobel (or two), Rosalind Franklin's scientific legacy is extraordinary.