NARRATOR: As World War II comes to an end, scientists discover the secret of the atom, unleashing death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Now they are racing to discover the secret of life.
It will be the find of the century. It's May 1, 1952, and what these scientists gathered at the Royal Society don't know is, at this very moment, close by in a London lab, an X-ray camera is clicking off a 100-hour exposure of something called "DNA."
When developed, this photograph will reveal the structure of DNA and the key to understanding how the blueprint for all life on earth is passed down from generation to generation.
Two of the most determined of the DNA detectives are Francis Crick and an American, James Watson. Also at the Royal Society is a 31 year-old British scientist named Rosalind Franklin. She is responsible for the crucial X-ray photo.
As Watson, Crick and their colleague Maurice Wilkins, strive to solve the puzzle of DNA, Franklin's work will pave the way. Without her knowledge, they will gain access to her findings and her remarkable X-ray image of DNA. It will lead to one of the greatest discoveries in science, and, some believe, to one of its greatest injustices.
Up next on NOVA, Rosalind Franklin and the Secret of Photo 51.
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NARRATOR: In 1962, a Nobel Prize is awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their groundbreaking work on DNA. It is one of the greatest achievements in the history of science, often described as the key to unlocking the secret of life.
A few years later, James Watson publishes his personal account of the discovery. In The Double Helix, this slim, best-selling book, he depicts a race to determine the structure of DNA and introduces a little-known scientist named Rosalind Franklin.
BRENDA MADDOX (Author, Rosalind Franklin): I don't think anybody would have heard of Rosalind Franklin. I certainly wouldn't have written the book unless James Watson, in 1968, had written The Double Helix. But in it there is this character, the terrible Rosy, this bad tempered, bluestocking who hoarded her data, who wouldn't let the men see it, you know, and lashed out at all of them. They were all terrified of her, and it really makes the whole story go.
NARRATOR: Watson's casting of Franklin as villain works as a literary device, but who she is in his book and who she was in real life are quite different. And unfortunately, Franklin wasn't around to defend herself. She died at the age of 37, a decade before The Double Helix was published and became a best seller.
BRENDA MADDOX: When The Double Helix was in rough draft, Harvard University Press, which was planning to publish it, asked that all those so candidly mentioned be given a chance to read it. And they did. And Wilkins and Crick above all, but not only, objected most strongly.
NARRATOR: As Francis Crick wrote to Watson, "Your book is misleading and in bad taste. It does not illuminate the process of scientific discovery, it distorts it."
Maurice Wilkins complained that the book was, "unfair to almost everyone mentioned except Professor Watson himself." And, referring to Rosalind Franklin, he asks Watson "Is there any mention in your book that she died?"
MAURICE WILKINS (King's College London): Well that was what the main thing in objecting to Jim's book was...it...what it said of Rosalind. There was all this silly natter about the wrong clothing or something. I thought this pretty inane and not true. I mean she was, to say the least, a very presentable person.
NARRATOR: Who was the real Rosalind Franklin? And what is her contribution to one of the greatest breakthroughs in science?
Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920, into a family that achieved wealth through banking and publishing. They had a proud tradition of scholarship, philanthropy and involvement in social causes.
BRENDA MADDOX: The Franklin family was one of a very select group of English Jews who came to England during the 18th century. They became very wealthy, a very close network, very English in their manner, more English than the English.
NARRATOR: From an early age, Rosalind stands out. She enjoys memory games, and an aunt writes, "Rosalind is alarmingly clever. She spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, and invariably gets her sums right."
Her parents send her to St. Paul's Girls' School, which, despite its name, had no church affiliation. What it did have was a strong tradition of preparing girls for a career.
Sue Richley and Anne Piper attended St. Paul's and were Rosalind Franklin's lifelong friends.
ANNE PIPER (Lifelong friend of Rosalind Franklin): She was the best at science, she was the best at math, and she was just one of the best in that year...the best, I would say, in that year. She played in the teams...
SUE RICHLEY (Lifelong friend of Rosalind Franklin): Tennis, hockey, lacrosse, football, cricket...
ANNE PIPER: Yes, she combined using her mind play with having a certain natural ability.
SUE RICHLEY: She always expected...and if she undertook something, she would be running it. She wished to be, expected it to be like that.
NARRATOR: While Rosalind excels academically, the outside world is encroaching. The Nazis are on the march. As Jewish refugees flee the Nazi onslaught, the Franklins are active in finding safe haven in England for those who manage to escape.
Rosalind is anxious to do something useful with her life. She finishes a year early at St. Paul's and wins a scholarship to study physics and chemistry at Cambridge University.
BRENDA MADDOX: In 1938, Rosalind arrives here at Newnham College, one of the women's colleges of Cambridge University. In her classes she's introduced to the new subject of X-ray crystallography.
NARRATOR: This technique can reveal the hidden atomic structure of matter in its crystalline form. Atoms are too small to see under light microscopes, so crystallographers shoot invisible X-rays at them, which then bounce off, or diffract, onto a detector, such as film.
By applying math to the diffraction pattern, it's possible to calculate the three-dimensional form of even the most complex molecules.
BRENDA MADDOX: In her X-ray diffraction work, Rosalind joins the small band of the human race for whom tiny specks of matter are as real as billiard balls.
NARRATOR: In 1939, as Franklin steps into the world of science, Cambridge University appoints its first female professor, and Britain prepares for the German invasion.
By the time she graduates, Franklin is determined to contribute to the war effort. Her father pressures her to carry on the family's charitable tradition. She replies that she would be of little use in anything but science. When he accuses her of making science her religion, she writes, "In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall succeed in our aims: the improvement of mankind."
BRENDA MADDOX: Cambridge really did for Rosalind everything that a good university should. It gave her a profession, a philosophy of life. It enabled her to distance herself from her parents. She emerged a mature, socially and politically aware individual, and she was ready to become a working scientist.
NARRATOR: She joined the war effort doing research on coal. Her experiments led to a better gas mask, a valuable contribution to England under attack. She published five landmark papers, still cited today, and she was awarded her Ph.D.
When the war was over, her experience earned her the job offer of her dreams, a research position in one of the best labs in Paris. One of her closest colleagues and friends at the Laboratoire is Vittorio Luzatti, here, in a restaurant that Rosalind enjoyed.
VITTORIO LUZZATI (CNRS): She loved Paris, she loved life in Paris. That was quite clear. She was very happy here.
NARRATOR: She took a flat on a little street behind the Church of St. Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement. She wore the latest in Paris fashion, Dior's "New Look" for the new woman. She shopped in the fresh air markets and took great pleasure cooking for her friends.
She walked to work along the Seine, passing in the shadow of Notre Dame, to the Laboratoire Central, at 12 Quai Henri IV. It was here, in a collegial atmosphere, that Franklin perfected her techniques of X-ray diffraction.
LYNN OSMAN ELKIN (California State University, Hayward): She had just a feeling for the work, for experimental work. She loved it. She loved being in the laboratory. And a lot of people who are very, very good scientists—and even very good experimental scientists—view that as drudgery that they have to get through to get an answer, whereas she actually loved the process of science.
NARRATOR: Franklin was gaining an international reputation, speaking at conferences and publishing in professional journals. An avid hiker, she took trips with colleagues to Norway, Wales and the Alps.
Her research was not without its risks. Lab workers were periodically checked for overexposure to X-rays, and when Franklin exceeded safe levels, she was upset that she had to stay away from the lab for a few weeks.
After four years in Paris, she faced a decision. Should she stay in France or return home to England? She asked the advice of Dorothy Hodgkin, a renowned crystallographer and one of only ten women to win a Nobel Prize.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: And it was Dorothy's advice that it was time for her to make up her mind, and if she decided to have her scientific life in England, she should go back. And she left reluctantly. She was not very happy to leave Paris. I think that the decision she had to make...I think it was, to some extent, a cruel one.
NARRATOR: Franklin is offered a position at King's College in London, a highly prestigious research center. She is hired by J. T. Randall, the director of the biophysics labs, to create an X-ray diffraction unit to investigate the structure of proteins. She accepts the offer, but writes to a friend, "To change the banks of the Seine for a cellar on the Strand seems to me quite insane."
But as she is leaving Paris, she receives a letter from Randall, shifting her focus from proteins to the little understood substance, called DNA. Rosalind Franklin is 30 years old as she unwittingly enters an undeclared race to unravel the secret of life.
KIMBERLY MOWRY (Brown University): So this is DNA. It's really beautiful and amazing stuff. It's responsible for heredity; it's the genetic material. Some would argue that it's the blueprint for every cell in your body. But at the time when Rosalind Franklin started working on DNA, it wasn't at all clear what DNA really looked like or how it might work.
NARRATOR: In 1943, after a decade of work, Oswald Avery and his team at Rockefeller University transferred DNA from a disease-causing strain of bacteria into a harmless strain. The harmless strain turned virulent, strongly suggesting a link between DNA and heredity.
KIMBERLY MOWRY: Avery's experiments showed that genetic characteristics of one organism could be transferred to another. And he showed that DNA was the vehicle of that transformation, that DNA was the genetic material. But that conclusion was by no means universally accepted.
NARRATOR: DNA was thought to consist of sugar and phosphates in long chains of some unknown shape. It also appeared to have just four other chemical ingredients, called bases. But how could such a simple molecule be responsible for the diversity of all life on Earth? Some believed that discovering the structure of DNA would lead to an answer. That was Franklin's assignment when she arrived at King's College London, in January, 1951.
Now a Professor at King's, Raymond Gosling was a Ph.D. student in biophysics, at the time of Franklin's arrival.
RAYMOND GOSLING (King's College London): When I first came in '49, '50, what there was, was a bomb crater, remains of the second World War. We had to walk around the bomb crater and in here to the main hall of the college.
Now, our physics department was down that end of this corridor. Right at the end was the lab that Rosalind and I did the X-ray diffraction in. Yes, yes, now this is quite close to what it was actually like. This is about the size of the room, and as you see it's right in the basement, so that gives you a sort of taste to the bowels-of-the-earth type of environment in which the early work was done.
NARRATOR: Despite the war-ravaged facilities, King's College was the place to be for DNA research.
RAYMOND GOSLING: Maurice Wilkins had his office just through these doors in those days.
NARRATOR: Maurice Wilkins, a physicist fresh from the Manhattan Project, took some of the first X-ray diffraction images of DNA here. He had to improvise at every step to cope with the lab's antiquated technology.
RAYMOND GOSLING: Maurice came over and had a look at what I was doing, and we decided that, of course, that this was a dreadful leaky object. And he thought for a bit, then took a condom out of his pocket and said, "Here you are, my boy. Poke the collimator through that." And so we did.
NARRATOR: Franklin quickly adjusted to the physical limitations of the lab, but not to the segregated boys' club culture of King's College.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: She was not happy in King's College. And all that she told us about it was almost incredible. I mean, the fact that they had a common room, a lunch place, which was forbidden to women, I mean it sounded unheard...I mean it was absurd to us. It was not the kind of life you would like to have anywhere, to be forbidden a place because you are a dog, a woman or a Jew.
NARRATOR: To make matters worse, there was confusion over who was in charge, Franklin or Maurice Wilkins. At the time of her arrival, Wilkins was on holiday. While he was gone, his Ph.D. student, Raymond Gosling, was put under Franklin's supervision.
When Wilkins returned, he walked into a vastly improved lab, but it wasn't his anymore. He lost his lab and his Ph.D. student. And Rosalind Franklin, whom he thought was going to be his assistant, turned out to be better trained and already working independently. When he checked in on her progress, he was rebuffed.
MAURICE WILKINS: And she just said, "Go back to your microscopes," which bewildered me. What the hell is she on about? So, we had a very stressful aspect, which did not help the joint work in our laboratory, as a result.
NARRATOR: The stressful relationship between Wilkins and Franklin arose from a miscommunication that originated with the director of the lab, J. T. Randall.
SIR AARON KLUG (Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology: Here we have copies of Rosalind Franklin's working notebooks.
NARRATOR: Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize winner and former president of the Royal Society, was Franklin's last collaborator. After her death, he studied her notebooks and letters, including the one from Randall.
SIR AARON KLUG: And in December, 1950, he writes her a letter, and I quote, "This means that as far as the experimental X-ray effort is concerned, there will be at the moment only yourself and Gosling." That letter was not seen by Wilkins. And that fact, and the fact that Wilkins was not present when Franklin arrived at King's College in January, 1951, led to a great deal of dissension later on.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: She thought that she was an independent researcher, and Maurice thought that she was his assistant, right? And that was a misunderstanding. And the responsibility of that misunderstanding lies in Randall's hands. Perhaps Maurice Wilkins could live with that kind of ambiguous situation more easily than Rosalind would. She didn't like that kind of unclear situation.
NARRATOR: The situation was inflamed by a basic personality clash. Franklin—articulate, passionate and always up for a good debate—and Wilkins—soft-spoken, deliberate and shy—just couldn't get along.
SIR AARON KLUG: She was a pretty tough person: single-minded, spoke what she believed and could, in fact, be quite fierce. And if she had been a man, it would have gone totally unremarked.
NARRATOR: Yet another barrier was social class and a private life entirely separate from the lab.
RAYMOND GOSLING: She had a very full social life. I mean, I know for a fact that at one stage, I think, she was going out with the first violin of the London Philharmonic. Now that is a cut above the beer-drinking chaps like us who were sitting in Finch's. And so to that extent...she had her own flat, she wasn't living in digs. She didn't suffer fools gladly, she was very intelligent, and she desperately wanted to get on with this work. She was so convinced that it was there like a ripe plum to be plucked from the tree.
NARRATOR: Despite all the tensions of the lab, Franklin applied herself to the task with single-minded determination, setting her sights on solving the structure of DNA. But now a new player was about to enter the game.
BRENDA MADDOX: While Rosalind was setting up her new lab at King's College London, James Watson—much younger, 23 but with a Ph.D.—had come to Europe because he wanted to study the gene, and he was convinced that the gene was the thing to study. This was going to be the secret of life.
NARRATOR: Watson goes to a conference in Naples where Wilkins shows one of his early, fuzzy diffraction images of DNA. Watson tries to meet Wilkins and wrangle an invitation to work at King's College.
JAMES WATSON (Race for the Double Helix, BBC, 1974): I tried to talk to him, but Maurice...afterwards, you know? His English...he doesn't talk much to strangers. And so I left and sort of the vague feeling that it would be nice if I could work with Maurice. But it wasn't the sort of obvious coming together of like minds.
NARRATOR: Wilkins does not take the bait. But shortly after, Watson is invited to the Cavendish, a famous research lab at Cambridge University, headed by Nobel Laureate, Sir Lawrence Bragg. There, Watson is assigned an office with another physicist turned crystallographer, Francis Crick, an old friend of Wilkins'. Crick and Watson immediately click.
But an hour away at King's College, the negative atmosphere takes a new turn for the worse. Rosalind Franklin is given the sarcastic nickname that Watson will later popularize in The Double Helix: Rosy.
MAURICE WILKINS: Oh yes, you know, it was with her walking around the lab sort of swinging her bag, making a bit like that on occasion. She provoked this sort of thing. Oh, poor Rosy, what a joke, silly joke.
RAYMOND GOSLING: A lot of people referred to her as Rosy behind her back, but nobody called her Rosy to her face.
NARRATOR: Despite the hostile environment, within months of her arrival at King's, Franklin is producing amazing results.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: Rosalind did the most professional work. She had a good camera because she developed a good camera. She got superb pictures, the best in those days.
SIR AARON KLUG: Within a few months, Franklin transformed the state of research at King's, but above all she discovered that there were two forms of DNA.
NARRATOR: Franklin's discovery that there are two forms of DNA is perhaps the most crucial step toward the ultimate discovery of its structure.
KIMBERLY MOWRY: Before Rosalind Franklin discovered that there were two distinct forms of DNA—the A and the B forms—people were probably looking at mixtures of those two forms. It would be sort of like if you had a picture of Mickey Mouse superimposed on a picture of Donald Duck. It would be almost impossible to understand what either Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck looked like.
NARRATOR: The A is a drier, more crystalline form of DNA and produces more detailed images. The B is wetter and how DNA occurs in living cells. It produces a simpler image, but reveals a key clue to solving the structure of DNA. The X shape in the middle is the diffraction signature of a helix.
The significance is not lost on Franklin. She notes it in scientific shorthand and, according to Klug, presents her discovery.
SIR AARON KLUG: In November, 1951, Franklin gave a colloquium about her work and described the A and the B forms. She concentrated mostly on the A form. "And the A form," she says, "is likely to be helical like the B." The B, unquestionably in her view, was helical throughout. It was quite clear. But she was concentrating upon the A form because of the greater wealth of information you could get from it. That was her analytical approach.
NARRATOR: In the audience that day is James Watson, sent by Crick to gather intelligence on Franklin's labors. Crick and Watson are planning to use a different approach to solving the structure of DNA: model-building.
Within a week, Watson and Crick invite the scientists from King's College to see their model.
RAYMOND GOSLING: So Rosalind just was terribly amused. And she never took prisoners anyway, so she was pretty sharp in her criticism of the model and explained in detail why it couldn't be correct: one, two, three. And then we left.
NARRATOR: The model of DNA touted by Watson and Crick is an embarrassing failure.
BRENDA MADDOX: Well, as Watson himself said very frankly, he didn't know enough about crystallography to understand the meaning of her data. He missed that entirely, and he found himself really just preoccupied with her looks. "Why was she so plain? Why didn't she wear lipstick? She might have been pretty, if she had taken off her glasses and done something interesting with her hair."
NARRATOR: Lawrence Bragg, the head of the Cavendish Lab, is humiliated and forbids Watson and Crick to continue their model-making.
RAYMOND GOSLING: It was a happy moment for Rosalind and me, because it justified her interpretation that you could build models, but you couldn't prove which was the right one. And here they were, the model builders, hard at it, and they had produced completely the wrong model.
NARRATOR: To Franklin, the incident is an affirmation of her training: that experimentation and patient analysis of the data will reveal the answer. But what Franklin may not know, is that her unpublished findings will continue to make their way to Watson and Crick. And they are getting there through the deputy director of her own lab, Maurice Wilkins.
BRENDA MADDOX: Gradually, Wilkins felt shut out of his own subject. So he began going up to Cambridge to talk to his old friend—and he was an old friend—Francis Crick about DNA, which he was still interested in, and about this terrible Rosy who was hoarding, he felt, her data. So inadvertently, Wilkins was the conduit. A lot of information from Rosalind and from King's actually passed its way to Cambridge, so that even if Watson and Crick were not officially working on DNA, they were speculating.
NARRATOR: But while Crick and Watson speculate, Franklin continues to analyze and collect new information. In May, 1952, she sets up the X-ray diffractometer to take an image of the wetter form of DNA, the B.
Today, X-ray diffraction technology, vastly improved, is still used to explore molecular structure.
JOANNE YEH (Brown University): At the end of this glass capillary is a DNA fiber, similar to the kind that Rosalind Franklin worked with. And it is so small that it's difficult to see it with your naked eye. Rosalind Franklin had to bundle together 20 of these fibers, in order to get X-ray diffraction images.
NARRATOR: Now, scientists use DNA crystals, which give better results than these microscopic fibers. Twenty of them bundled together are about the thickness of a human hair.
And with X-ray beams at least 300 times stronger today than in Franklin's time, it can take only seconds to expose an image that took Franklin 100 hours. Now, a computer interprets the image and swiftly calculates a 3-D model. But in Franklin's time, analyzing diffraction patterns could require thousands of calculations done by hand, and interpreting a single image could take more than a year.
JOANNE YEH: So, for Rosalind Franklin to go through the calculation, she had to have perseverance and motivation and a real drive and to do all of the calculation that was necessary by hand.
NARRATOR: In May, 1952, Franklin's perseverance and exacting techniques pay off, producing the sharpest image yet of the B form of DNA. She labels it "Photo 51" and puts it aside while she continues her work on the A form. But around this time, Franklin will acquire another nickname: The Dark Lady. She is so unhappy at King's, she arranges to leave. She agrees to finish analyzing her data, write up her findings and stay until the end of the year.
RAYMOND GOSLING: I was very sorry that she should find it necessary to leave, but of course appreciated that there was no alternative, that the Crown Prince and the Dark Lady were never going to get on together. He wasn't going to leave, so it was obvious that Rosalind was going to leave.
NARRATOR: In the midst of this transition, someone gives Photo 51 to Wilkins.
RAYMOND GOSLING: I cannot remember how he came by this beautiful picture. It may have been given to him by Rosalind, or it may have been me.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, at the Cavendish, a new researcher moves into the lab with Watson and Crick: Peter Pauling, the son of the renowned guru of chemistry from Caltech, Linus Pauling.
Only a year ago, Pauling had pioneered the same model-building technique adopted by Watson and Crick. With little experimental data, Pauling had come up with the structure for long stretches of proteins, a single-stranded helix. Now Pauling sends his son a paper in which he proposes a structure for DNA.
JAMES WATSON: Of course we were upset. The question was, could he be right? And we knew that Linus didn't have a good X-ray photograph. So could he have thought it through without any of the King's data?
NARRATOR: The answer was no. Pauling makes some of the same mistakes that Watson and Crick had made on their first model, a three-stranded helix with the bases on the outside. But Pauling's mistake will be discovered as soon as he publishes.
Watson knows that if Pauling gets access to Rosalind Franklin's data, he could quickly come up with the correct model. Now, the race begins in earnest. Watson estimates he and Crick have six weeks to solve the problem.
Around the time Franklin gives her last presentation at King's College, Jim Watson shows up in her office. He tries to show her Pauling's paper, perhaps to convince her that Pauling will beat them to solve the structure of DNA, if she doesn't pool her data with him and Crick. And according to Watson's account, he implies that she is incompetent in interpreting X-ray pictures.
BRENDA MADDOX: And as he tells us in The Double Helix, "She began to advance toward me, and," he said, "fearing that in her anger she might strike me, I retreated." Which is actually absurd; she was almost half his size.
NARRATOR: Watson then reports that he runs into Maurice Wilkins. Wilkins shows Watson Photo 51.
MAURICE WILKINS: And when he saw this, suddenly...well I was surprised. I said "Oh!" like this, you see? I thought, "Oh, well, this must have been done in the last couple of days or something." But it occurred to me it had been lying there for several months.
NARRATOR: "My mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson says in The Double Helix. It is the clear X pattern, the signature of a helix, that ignites his excitement. But there's more.
SIR AARON KLUG: From this photo alone you can deduce the number of units per turn, per helical turn, that were in the helix.
NARRATOR: The number of lines in the photo shows that each twist of the helix has 10 units, or molecular building blocks. And the dimensions of the image correspond to a helix of 34 angstroms per turn. Wilkins gives this crucial information to Watson.
SIR AARON KLUG: So they get the basic parameters for building the helical backbones.
NARRATOR: On the train back to Cambridge, Watson sketches Photo 51 on his newspaper and reports to Crick. Based on Franklin's data, Crick and Watson go to Lawrence Bragg, the head of the Cavendish lab, and he gives them permission, once again, to build a model. They begin on February 4, 1953.
BRENDA MADDOX: Then they have another idea. They knew that data from all of King's biophysics unit, including Rosalind's work, was published in a report for the Medical Research Council.
NARRATOR: In the MRC report, Franklin places DNA in a class of molecules with a certain type of symmetry, as these simple drawings in her notebook illustrate. The implications of that symmetry would be obvious to an expert like Francis Crick.
SIR AARON KLUG: The MRC report contains Franklin's data: the symmetry of the A form, all the crystal parameters, but above all, the symmetry. It was this symmetry which tells Crick there were two chains running in opposite directions.
NARRATOR: Two strands, each with the sugars and phosphates running in different directions: an anti-parallel double helix. But where do the bases go? On the outside, as Watson and Crick depicted in their first model, or the inside, as Franklin had told them?
There were two important clues. A few years earlier, a British scientist, William Astbury, theorized that the four bases—adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine—would be stacked like pennies. And at Columbia University, Erwin Chargaff discovered that DNA always contains equal amounts of adenine and thymine, as well as equal amounts of guanine and cytosine.
At first, Watson thought that the bases must be paired like with like: A with A, G with G, and so on. But an office mate, Jerry Donohue, shows him that he's using the wrong chemical forms.
With the right forms, Watson then makes a giant leap. He finds he can fit the bases into the helix measured by Franklin if he pairs A with T and G with C. Arranged this way, the bases form the connecting rungs in a twisting ladder on the inside of a double helix.
It is Rosalind Franklin's experimental framework, a collection of evidence painstakingly accumulated over two years, that guides Watson and Crick to solve the structure of DNA.
And in another eureka moment, the structure rewards them with the immediate realization of how DNA replicates. Unzipping the helix produces two templates to create two new helices, each identical to the original. DNA isn't just a molecule, it's the blueprint for life.
In one the most famous understatements in science, Watson and Crick write, "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
The day was Saturday, February 28, 1953.
BRENDA MADDOX: That was the day that they went into the pub, The Eagle, and Crick told everybody, "We've discovered the secret of life."
NARRATOR: Now that they have discovered the secret of life, they have another problem to solve. How are they going to prove it? Once again, they need Franklin. She travels to Cambridge to review the model.
SIR AARON KLUG: And Watson writes in his book that, "her immediate acceptance of the model amazed me." But she, she understood immediately that the model was correct. What perhaps she didn't know was how much of her data they had known in order to build that model.
BRENDA MADDOX: Rosalind's part in the great discovery was obscured by a series of maneuvers made behind her back. The thing is that Watson and Crick wanted to publish quickly to get ahead of Linus Pauling in California. But they were held back by the embarrassing fact that all the experimental work that had led to their great leaps of the imagination had been done at a rival institution, at King's. And Rosalind's data hadn't been published.
NARRATOR: According to Brenda Maddox, Bragg, of the Cavendish, and Randall, of King's, approach the editors of Nature to engineer a solution. They agree to publish three articles within a single issue: Watson and Crick's article first, Wilkins and his collaborator next, and last is Franklin and Gosling's article. Its position at the end suggests Franklin's findings merely confirm Watson and Crick's model instead of providing the essential data used to formulate it.
SIR JOHN MADDOX (Former Editor, Nature): The Crick and Watson paper doesn't say in what particular respects they were indebted to Franklin for her work.
NARRATOR: Sir John Maddox, later editor of Nature for two decades, shows how Franklin's contribution was obscured by Watson and Crick with a single guarded sentence.
SIR JOHN MADDOX: They say, "We have been stimulated by a general knowledge of her work." But in fact, they had particular knowledge of her work. And I, as an editor, would have smelled a rat at that.
NARRATOR: Franklin had written her own article a month before she saw the model. Inserted by hand into the original text is the sentence, "Thus our general ideas are consistent with the model proposed by Crick and Watson." Indeed, her ideas were consistent with their model, because they largely based their model on her ideas.
LYNN OSMAN ELKIN: What did Watson and Crick have without Rosalind Franklin's data? And the answer is, "almost nothing." They were poised to figure it out, their work was brilliant, but they couldn't do it without Rosalind Franklin's data.
NARRATOR: In fact, Rosalind Franklin could be said to be Watson and Crick's unknowing, and unrecognized, collaborator. By the time the articles appeared in Nature, on April 25, 1953, Franklin had taken her new position at Birkbeck College in London.
In her 5th floor office under a leaky skylight, she often left an umbrella open on her desk to protect her papers. She headed the virus research lab from 1953 to 1958 and thrived in Birkbeck's collegial atmosphere, much like her beloved Laboratoire in Paris.
Here, she made what she called her greatest discovery, working out the complex structure of a virus and locating its infectious element. She collaborated with Aaron Klug who later wins a Nobel Prize.
SIR AARON KLUG: She worked out the exact geometry so that...it was important in history that you could actually do such things. The thing about Rosalind was that she was single-minded and she could tackle these large and difficult problems.
NARRATOR: Franklin's virus work secured her international reputation and brought many invitations to speak in the United States. In 1956, she celebrated her 36th birthday while visiting universities in California, and climbed Mt. Whitney, one of the highest peaks in North America. But near the end of her trip, Franklin was suffering from severe abdominal pains. On her return to England she was diagnosed with cancer. There is speculation that her work with X-rays may have triggered the disease.
SUE RICHLEY: She handled it marvelously.
ANNE PIPER: Yup, she was in the Marsden, the cancer hospital, and there she was in a private, well a single room at the end of the corridor with work papers and calculations all around.
DONALD CASPER (Florida State University): She was still optimistic and confident that things were going to get better.
NARRATOR: Don Caspar, an American colleague, recalls her struggle to climb from the basement lab to her fifth floor office upstairs.
DONALD CASPER: Up until the end, she was still working away. We had wished we could help her, but unfortunately there was nothing could be done.
BRENDA MADDOX: After a year and a half of terrible illness, painful treatment, she asked her doctor for a frank prognosis, and he told her to seek the consolations of religion. She was furious. She was not religious. She had a full agenda. She had an invitation to a fellowship in Caracas. She was too busy to die.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: Rosalind and I were going to attend a meeting in Leeds, and she suggested that we could drive and go and visit some of the Norman cathedrals. When I arrived in London, I called her, because I expected to stay with her. And there was no answer. And after several attempts to get her on the phone, I called Aaron Klug, who I knew rather well, and he told me she was in hospital. So until the very last day, she hoped that she could go to the countryside with a friend. And she died while we were at Leeds, at the meeting.
NARRATOR: Her epitaph reads "Scientist: her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind." She died April 16, 1958. That same day, the London Times carried an article acclaiming her virus model, which was unveiled at the Brussels World Fair.
Her obituary in the New York Times called her "one of a select band of pioneers unraveling virus diseases and genetics."
She went to the grave never knowing how much Watson and Crick had relied on her work to make their great discovery. Or if she knew, she didn't care.
In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin's name receives no mention, save a passing reference by Wilkins. Her crucial contribution to their work becomes a footnote in scientific history.
VITTORIO LUZZATI: Rosalind probably would have been forgotten—not by her friends, we would not have forgotten Rosalind, but, I mean, by the public in general. If we talk about Rosalind, it is because of the way Jim Watson offended her memory.
NARRATOR: In 1968, James Watson published The Double Helix, his personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA. In his book, Watson casts Franklin as uncooperative, unattractive and "incompetent in interpreting X-ray pictures." And yet, Watson admits he needs her findings. He even boasts of using her work without her knowledge or permission, saying, "Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at King's realized they were in our hands."
When the book was in rough draft, Harvard University Press asked those mentioned in the manuscript to read it. Many, including Crick and Wilkins, objected so strongly that, in a highly unprecedented move, Harvard withdrew its offer to publish. The book came out with a popular press and became an instant best seller.
BRENDA MADDOX: But most of the main portraits were modified, all except Rosalind, who was dead. And every writer knows you can't libel the dead.
NARRATOR: Franklin's family and colleagues protested Watson's portrayal of, as one put it, "that gifted girl who could not defend herself."
BRENDA MADDOX: So Watson obliged. And he wrote a pious epilogue saying as a young man he had not appreciated the difficulties that women had in being accepted and making their way in science And the epilogue is there, but it does nothing to alter or soften the character of this, of this terrible Rosy.
NARRATOR: Watson declined NOVA's request for an interview.
Franklin is now receiving some long overdue recognition: plaques where she lived and worked, and, recently, Britain's Royal Society created the Rosalind Franklin Award to support women in science.
When Sir Aaron Klug won his Nobel Prize, in part for the work he started with Franklin, he, unlike the DNA trio, honored her contribution.
SIR AARON KLUG: As I said in my Nobel lecture, she made quite an impression on me, where she pointed the way to tackling important, difficult problems, no matter how long they took.
BRENDA MADDOX: Rosalind died at 37 with no sense of having been edged out in a race that only Watson and Crick knew was a race. She died proud of her world reputation in coal and virus research. She was cheated of the only thing she really wanted, which was a chance to finish her work. My view? Her lost prize was life.
NARRATOR: Those who admire Franklin take solace in her uncompromising dedication. For Rosalind Franklin, the joy of science was in the work itself and its ultimate reward, the betterment of humankind.
On NOVA's Website, find out why Rosalind Franklin's Photo 51 holds so many clues to the structure of DNA, at PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.
The Secret of Photo 51 video and the book, Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, are available from WGBH Boston Video. To place an order, please call 1-800-255-9424.
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Secret of Photo 51
Written, Produced and Directed by
Additional Editing and Producing
Online Editor and Colorist
Sound Design and Editing
Nancy King, Production Manager
Marilyn Salvatore, Costume Designer
Tom Walden, Production Designer
Anne Mulhall, Casting, LDI Casting
Nicky Pleau, Hair and Make-up
Red Herring, Lighting Equipment
David Rotondo, Model Builder
Leah Serinsky as Rosalind Franklin
Sophie Tezenas as Rosalind Franklin
Manya Branham Glassman as young Rosalind Franklin
Daniel Kirby as James Watson
Christopher Wall as Francis Crick
Patrick Dougherty as Maurice Wilkins
Ryan Culligan as Raymond Gosling
Thomas Norton as Lawrence Bragg
Walter Cotter as JT Randall
Special thanks to all those who made the recreations possible
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A NOVA Production by Providence Pictures, Inc. for WGBH/Boston in association with the BBC, France 2, Multimedia France Productions and Centre National de la Cinématographie.
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