Rosalind Elsie Franklin.

Meet Rosalind Franklin, a sidelined figure in the history of DNA science

We all know the scene — James Watson and Francis Crick, discoverers of the DNA double helix, walk into a pub in Cambridge and declare, “We have discovered the secret of life!” The rest is Nobel Prize history.

Except, “[t]he most famous scientific announcement of the twentieth century was not made in precisely the way most of us were taught in high school,” writes Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and PBS NewsHour columnist. “This apocryphal moment, like so many others constituting the epic search for DNA’s structure, has long been exaggerated, altered, shaped, and embellished.”

In his new book, “The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix,” Markel tells the far more complicated tale, and what he calls one of the most egregious rip-offs in the history of science.

9781324002239-us

“If life was fair, which it’s not, it would be called the Watson-Crick-Franklin model,” Markel told the PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham in a conversation in September. Franklin was a British chemist whose X-ray diffraction image of DNA was critical to Watson solving the double helix mystery. But she was not credited and died at 37 before the record could be corrected.

WATCH: Why discovery of DNA’s double helix was based on ‘rip-off’ of female scientist’s data

So who was Franklin? She displayed extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity and spirit from a young age, according to accounts. Markel paints a vivid portrait of her as fiercely intelligent — and, occasionally, simply fierce (Markel recounts how she once got into a scuffle over a Tesla coil that did not belong to her). In two excerpts from his book, we learn about her early attraction to science and inability to suffer fools, as well as her time in France where she blossomed as a young researcher.

“Like many gifted young people, Rosalind Franklin erroneously assumed that her intense intellectual focus and quick, logical mind were universal and common,” Markel writes. “Throughout her life, she had a difficult time tolerating the mediocrity of others, often at the expense of her professional development.”

Below, read more by Markel about one of the hidden figures who helped advance the study of life as we know it.

Excerpts from “The Secret of Life,” Chapter 6

By Howard Markel

As a little girl, Rosalind distinguished herself from her siblings (one older brother, David; two younger brothers, Colin and Roland; and a younger sister, Jenifer) by being quiet of voice, observant of those around her, and perceptive in her judgments. Overly sensitive, especially if she felt slighted or wronged, her response as a youngster was to retreat and ruminate. Her mother, Muriel, the very model of the traditional Jewish wife, wrote more than a decade after her second child’s death, “When Rosalind was upset she would figuratively curl up—like touching the fronds of a sea anemone. She hid her wounds and trouble made her withdrawn and upset. As a schoolgirl I always knew when something had gone wrong in school by her silences when she got home.”

Such sensitivity often obscured her deeper talents. In 1926, Rosalind’s aunt Mamie described to her husband a visit with her brother and his family on the Cornwall coast. She provided a wonderful characterization of the six-year-old Rosalind: “[she] is alarmingly clever—she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, & invariably gets her sums right.” Equally apt was Muriel’s recollection of young Rosalind’s “immensely glowing character, very strong and brilliant—not just intellectual brilliance, but a brilliance of spirit.” Perhaps we ought to give the last word to the eleven-year-old Rosalind, soon after her mother introduced her to the science behind developing photographs: “It makes me feel all squidgy inside.”

“All her life Rosalind knew exactly where she was going,” Muriel insisted; “her views were determined and clear cut.” As a teenager, Rosalind had already developed a sharp tongue and pointier elbows. She was unafraid of expressing her distaste or critique of others, especially in the cause of science. To those she loved, she was an ideal companion, funny, mischievous, and incisive of thought. Such was not the case for those who disappointed her in some manner or whom she found to be not up to the mark. Muriel knew all too well how her daughter could be devastatingly blunt and, to less grateful sets of ears, humiliating: “Rosalind’s hates, as well as her friendships, tended to be enduring.”

Like many gifted young people, Rosalind Franklin erroneously assumed that her intense intellectual focus and quick, logical mind were universal and common. Throughout her life, she had a difficult time tolerating the mediocrity of others, often at the expense of her professional development. “Absurdities exasperated her,” Anne Sayre observed. She responded to such people and situations with “fierce and stubborn indignation.” According to Muriel, people whom Rosalind deemed not to be very bright irritated her to distraction because of her “natural efficiency in whatever she was doing was characteristic, and she could never understand why everyone could not work as methodically, and with equal competence. She had little patience with well-intentioned bungling and could never suffer fools gladly.”

***

In early 1947, Franklin moved to Paris and reported for duty at the laboratory—or, as everyone there called it, the labo. The facility was situated at 12 Quai Henri IV, in the 4th arrondissement, and featured large arched and leaded windows looking out onto the river Seine. She spent the next four years working alongside a cadre of French men and women and expatriates. She toiled as intensely as ever, reveling in the opportunity to apply her superb motor skills, sharp mind, and love of experimental research to becoming one of the world’s finest X-ray crystallographers.

This was no easy task. To begin, one must identify a suitable molecule to analyze. The crystalline structure of a particular molecule has to be somewhat uniform and relatively large in size; otherwise, multiple errors will be introduced on the X-ray pattern. Once an appropriate crystal is identified, the crystallographer aims a beam of X-rays at it. As the X-rays strike the electrons of the atoms making up that crystal, they are scattered—and the scatterplot is recorded on a piece of photographic paper placed directly behind the crystal. By painstakingly measuring the sizes, angles, and intensities of these scattered X-rays and then applying complex mathematical formulae to mapping them, the crystallographer develops a three-dimensional picture of the crystal’s electron density. This, in turn, allows the positions of the atoms comprising the crystal to be determined, thus solving that molecule’s structure.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin in 1955. Photo by Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Confounding matters further, a single X-ray image never provides the total answer. The crystallographer must rotate the specimen stepwise through hundreds of infinitesimally different angles over a spectrum of 180 (or more) degrees and take an X-ray picture at each one—and each presents its own set of smudges or diffraction patterns, making the process both time-intensive, mind-numbing, and physically cumbersome. Every one of these hundreds to thousands of X-ray diffraction patterns was, at that time, measured and analyzed by hand, eye, and a slide rule. If each step was not executed perfectly, artifacts or errors of measurement might be introduced, leading to wrong answers and conclusions. A blurred image leads to an even blurrier assessment of how the atoms of that molecule are arranged. Fortunately, Franklin was astoundingly adept at these methods, and her results were superb. Her colleague, Vittorio Luzzati, an Italian Jewish crystallographer, was amazed by the results that came out of her “golden hands.” Her supervisor, Jacques Mering, who was also Jewish, described Franklin as one of his best students, someone with a voracious appetite for acquiring new knowledge and remarkably skillful in both designing and executing complex experiments.

In Paris, Franklin’s social life took on a continental flair. Fluent in French, she loved shopping at the greengrocers and butchers, bolting down creamy pastries along the way, shopping for the perfect scarf or sweater, and getting lost exploring the byways of the City of Light. She adopted Christian Dior’s “New Look” and took to wearing perfectly-cut dresses that featured tight waistlines, small shoulders, and long, full skirts. She absorbed the local culture and politics, frequently attending films, plays, lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions with friends and potential suitors. Her vivacity, stylishness, and youthful beauty were not lost on the men in her life. Some have speculated that she developed a crush on the handsome, flirtatious Jacques Mering, but because he was married, albeit estranged from his wife, she quickly retreated, sensing there was no chance for a romantic future.

For three of her four years in Paris, Franklin lived in a small room on the top floor of a house on rue Garancière, for the equivalent of about three pounds sterling a month. The landlady, a widow, had strict rules: no noise after 9:30 p.m., and Franklin could only use the kitchen after the maid had prepared the widow’s dinner. Despite such restrictions, Franklin learned how to cook perfect soufflés and often made dinner for friends. She had access to a bathtub once a week but otherwise used a tin basin filled with tepid water. The rent was a third of what she would pay elsewhere and the location was perfect: the 6th arrondissement, home to the iconic Left Bank and the Sorbonne, situated between the gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg and the lively cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

In the labo, men and women worked as equals in attending to their experiments, sharing meals and coffee, and debating scientific theory as if their lives depended on the outcome. Luzzati (who, in 1953, would share an office with Crick at the Brooklyn Polytechnical Institute) recalled that deep within Franklin was “a psychological knot” he could never unravel. She made many friends and some enemies, Luzzati explained, largely because “she was very strong and crushing, very demanding of herself and others, enduring not always to be liked.” Although he often had to smooth over her verbal squabbles, he insisted that “she was a person of utter honesty, incapable of violating her principles. Everybody who worked directly with her enveloped her in affection and respect.”

Franklin’s aventure parisienne was the antithesis of the very British conduct she later encountered at King’s College, London. According to the physicist Geoffrey Brown, who worked with her both in Paris and at King’s, the labo “resembled a traveling opera company . . . they screamed, stamped their feet, quarreled, threw minor bits of equipment at each other, burst into tears, fell into each other’s arms—all this in the course of any discussion.” At the end of such heated debates, however, “the storms blew over leaving no grudges behind.”

On more than a few occasions, much to the harm of her reputation, Franklin imported such high drama to the King’s College lab. One afternoon, she asked Brown if she could borrow his Tesla coil, an electric circuit designed to produce the high voltages needed for X-ray to work. She failed to return it despite several polite entreaties from Brown, who needed the coil for his own experiments. As a result, he recalled, “I went and took it back, and screwed it onto the wall. And she came in, pulled it off and walked straight out.” He was still a lowly student and she was a postdoctoral fellow. Rank, clearly, had its privilege in the lab. The matter, Brown recalled, was resolved without hard feelings; he, his wife, and Franklin became fast friends. Several of the other resentments she inspired at King’s, however, would not pass so easily.

Excerpted from pp. 65-67, 82-84 in “The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix.” Copyright (c) 2021 by Howard Markel. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Support PBS NewsHour: