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

Rosalind Elsie Franklin.

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

Except, “[t]“The most famous scientific claim of the twentieth century was not made the way most of us were in high school,” writes Dr. Howard Markel, director of the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and columnist for PBS NewsHour. … “This apocryphal moment, like many others that make up the epic quest for DNA structure, has long been exaggerated, changed, formed and embellished.”

In his new book, The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick and the DNA Double Helix Discovery, Markel tells a much more complex story and what he calls one of the most egregious robberies in the world. history of science.

“If life were fair, and it is not, it would be called the Watson-Creek-Franklin model,” Markel told William Brangham in an interview with PBS NewsHour in September. Franklin was a British chemist whose X-ray diffraction image of DNA was crucial for Watson to solve the double helix puzzle. But she was not believed, and she died at the age of 37, before the record could be corrected.

WATCH: Why DNA double helix discovery was based on “ copying ” data from a female scientist

So who was Franklin? According to testimonies, from a young age she showed extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity and spirit. Markel paints a vivid portrait of her incredibly smart – and sometimes just ferocious (Markel recalls how she once got into a fight 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 her inability to tolerate fools, as well as her time in France, where she blossomed as a young explorer.

“Like many gifted young people, Rosalind Franklin mistakenly believed that her intense intellectual focus and quick, logical mind were universal and ordinary,” writes Markel. “Throughout her life, she found it difficult to tolerate the mediocrity of others, often to the detriment of her professional development.”

Below you can read more from Markel about one of the hidden figures that helped advance the study of life as we know it.

Excerpts from Chapter 6 “Secrets of Life”

Written by Howard Markel

As a child, Rosalind differed from her brothers and sisters (older brother David; two younger brothers Colin and Roland; and younger sister Jennifer) in her quiet voice communication, observation of others and insight in judgment. … Overly sensitive, especially if she felt that she was offended or offended, she retreated and reflected in childhood. Her mother, Muriel, an example of a traditional Jewish wife, wrote more than ten years after the death of her second child: “When Rosalind was upset, she figuratively curled up into a ball, like touching the leaves of a sea anemone. She hid her wounds, and the troubles made her withdrawn and upset. When I was a schoolgirl, I always knew when something went wrong at school, by her silence when she returned home. “

This sensitivity has often overshadowed her deeper talents. In 1926, Rosalind’s aunt Mamie told her husband about visiting her brother and his family on the Cornish coast. She gave an excellent description of six-year-old Rosalind: “[she] alarmingly smart – she spends all her time on arithmetic for fun and always gets the right sums. ” No less pertinent was Muriel’s recollection of “an incredibly bright character, very strong and brilliant – not only intellectually, but also spiritual” young Rosalind. Perhaps we should give the last word to eleven-year-old Rosalind shortly after her mother introduced her to the science behind photography: “I feel weak inside.”

“All her life Rosalind knew exactly where she was going,” insisted Muriel; “Her views were determined and clear.” As a teenager, Rosalind already had a sharp tongue and sharp elbows. She was not afraid to express her dislike or criticize others, especially in the interests of science. For those she loved, she was the perfect companion, funny, mischievous and perceptive. The situation is different with those who disappointed her in some way or whom she found not at the proper level. Muriel knew all too well how her daughter could be terribly straightforward and demeaning to less grateful people: “Rosalind’s hatred, like her friendship, usually continues.”

Like many gifted young people, Rosalind Franklin mistakenly believed that her intense intellectual focus and quick, logical mind were universal and pervasive. Throughout her life, she found it difficult to put up with the mediocrity of others, often to the detriment of her professional development. “The absurdities infuriated her,” said Ann Sayre. She responded to such people and situations with “fierce and stubborn indignation.” According to Muriel, people whom Rosalind considered not very smart irritated her to the point of madness, because her “natural efficiency in everything she did was characteristic, and she could never understand why everyone could not work so methodically and with the same competence. She had little patience with well-intentioned missteps, and she could never happily endure fools. “


In early 1947, Franklin moved to Paris and reported to work in the laboratory, or, as everyone called, the laboratory. The complex was located on quay Henri IV, 12, in the 4th arrondissement, and had large arched and leaded windows overlooking the Seine River. For the next four years she worked with French men, women and expats. She worked as hard as ever, reveling in the opportunity to apply her superior motor skills, sharp mind and love of experimental research to become one of the world’s best X-ray crystallographers.

It was not an easy task. First, you need to identify the right molecule for analysis. The crystal structure of a particular molecule should be somewhat uniform and relatively large in size; otherwise, multiple errors will appear on the radiograph. Once a suitable crystal is identified, the crystallograph directs an X-ray beam at it. When the X-rays strike the electrons of the atoms that make up this crystal, they are scattered – and the scatter diagram is written on a piece of photographic paper placed directly behind the crystal. By painstakingly measuring the dimensions, angles, and intensity of these scattered X-rays, and then applying complex mathematical formulas to display them, the crystallographer creates a three-dimensional picture of the electron density of the crystal. This, in turn, allows one to determine the positions of the atoms that make up the crystal, thereby deciding the structure of this molecule.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin.

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

To complicate matters further, a single x-ray image never provides a comprehensive answer. The crystallograph has to rotate the sample step by step through hundreds of infinitesimal angles in the spectrum of 180 (or more) degrees and take an X-ray of each of them – and each presents its own set of spots or diffraction patterns, which makes the process both time-consuming, overwhelming and physically cumbersome. Each of these hundreds or thousands of radiographs at that time was measured and analyzed by hand, by eye and using a slide rule. If every step has not been performed perfectly, artifacts or measurement errors may appear, leading to incorrect answers and conclusions. A blurred image makes it even more vague in assessing how the atoms of this molecule are located. Fortunately, Franklin has been amazingly adept at using these techniques, and the results have been excellent. Her colleague, Vittorio Luzzati, an Italian Jewish crystallographer, was amazed at the results she received from her “golden hands”. Its leader, Jacques Mehring, who was also Jewish, described Franklin as one of his best students, a man with an insatiable appetite for new knowledge and an outstanding skill in both design and complex experiments.

In Paris, Franklin’s social life took on a continental flavor. Fluent in French, she enjoyed shopping at grocery and butcher shops, eating creamy pastries along the way, buying the perfect scarf or sweater, and getting lost exploring the alleys of the City of Light. She adopted Christian Dior’s “New Look” and began to wear perfectly cut dresses with a narrow waistline, small shoulders and long full skirts. She absorbed local culture and politics, and often attended films, plays, lectures, concerts and art exhibitions with friends and potential suitors. Her cheerfulness, elegance and youthful beauty have not escaped the attention of the men in her life. Some speculate that she fell in love with the handsome, flirtatious Jacques Mehring, but since he was married, although not apart from his wife, she quickly backed down, feeling that she had no chance of 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 about £ 3 a month. The mistress, a widow, had a strict rule of not making noise after 9:30 pm, and Franklin could only use the kitchen after the maid had prepared dinner for the widow. Despite such restrictions, Franklin learned to make the perfect soufflé and often cooked dinner for friends. She had access to a bath once a week, but otherwise used a pewter basin filled with cool water. The rent was a third of what she would pay elsewhere, and the location was perfect: the 6th arrondissement, where the famous Left Bank and the Sorbonne are located, nestled between the gardens of the Luxembourg Palace and the bustling cafés of Saint Germain deux. -Pres.

In the lab, men and women worked as equals, observing their experiments, sharing food and coffee, and discussing scientific theory as if their lives depended on outcome. Luzzati (who in 1953 shared an office with Crick at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute) recalled that deep inside Franklin there was a “psychological knot” that he could never unravel. Luzzati explained that she had many friends and several enemies, mainly because “she was very strong and crushing, very demanding of herself and others, did not always endure to please”. Although he often had to settle her verbal quarrels, he insisted that “she was a person of absolute honesty, unable to violate her principles. Everyone who worked with her directly surrounded her with love and respect. “

Franklin’s Parisian adventure was the exact opposite of the British behavior she later encountered at King’s College London. According to the physicist Geoffrey Brown, who worked with her in both Paris and Kings, the laboratory “was like a traveling opera company. … … they screamed, stamped their feet, fought, threw small items of equipment at each other, cried, fell into each other’s arms – all this during any discussion. ” However, at the end of such heated debates, “a storm broke out, leaving no grievances.”

On more than a few occasions, to great damage to her reputation, Franklin imported such lofty dramas into the King’s College laboratory. One afternoon, she asked Brown if she could borrow his Tesla coil, an electrical circuit designed to generate the high voltage needed for X-rays to work. She did not return it, despite some polite persuasion from Brown, who needed the coil for his own experiments. As a result, he recalled, “I went, picked him up and screwed him to the wall. And she went in, took it off and went straight out. ” He was still a humble student and she was a doctoral student. The rank was undoubtedly privileged in the laboratory. The case, Brown recalled, was settled without offense; he, his wife and Franklin became loyal friends. However, some of the other grievances she caused King would not have gone so easily.

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

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