Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Double Helix Double Cross? (Science, Technology & Environment)

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Double Helix Double Cross? (Science, Technology & Environment)

Article excerpt

A Survey of Recent Articles

The observance this year of the 50th anniversary of the momentous discovery of the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) has been marked by reflections on an alleged scientific injustice almost as much as by celebration of the great scientific achievement.

Was Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the British scientist whose x-ray data on DNA played a crucial role in the discovery, denied proper credit for her contribution by codiscoverers James Watson and Francis Crick? A Nova television documentary, "Secret of Photo 51," broadcast on PBS on April 22 (see www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/photo51), was the most recent account to suggest as much. But the truth of the matter may be more complicated.

Though feminists have turned her into "an icon for the oppression of women scientists," observes Nicholas Wade, a science writer for The New York Times, there's no evidence that Franklin herself--no shrinking violet, and known to object vigorously to unfair treatment--felt that she bad been robbed by Watson and Crick. "She became friends with both men afterwards," Wade writes in The Scientist (Apr. 7, 2003; see also www.the-scientist.com), "and spent her last convalescence in Crick's house before her death, at age 37, from ovarian cancer."

In their 1953 article in Nature announcing the discovery--which was accompanied by an article by Franklin telling what she knew about DNA--Watson and Crick, of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, said merely that they had been "stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King's College, London." When they accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine (which they shared with Maurice Wilkins, the deputy director of King's College and Franklin's colleague and rival there), Watson and Crick made no mention of Franklin. And in his best-selling book The Double Helix (1968), Watson portrayed her in condescending terms. Watson also noted that Wilkins, in highhanded fashion, had shown him Franklin's x-ray photograph 51, without Franklin's knowledge. …

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