Remembering Rosalind Franklin: A note on Ada Lovelace Day

Rosalind Franklin on hiking trip in the Alps.  Image from the National Library of Medicines Profiles in Science project.

Rosalind Franklin on hiking trip in the Alps. Image from the National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science project.

Today, 24 March, is Ada Lovelace Day, honoring the remarkable woman that is arguably the first computer programmer, working a full century before the construction of the first electronic machines that we would typically recognize as modern computers. In honor of her work and the crucial but typically underreported contributions of women in technology, over 1,700 are writing today “about a woman in technology whom I admire”. This is my contribution.

When Charles Darwin published his landmark Origin of species 150 years ago, he played a critical role in transforming biology from an exercise in bug collecting and guesswork to a science, with testable hypotheses that could give meaning to all the data people were collecting in the field, and tie down some of the more wild-eyed speculations. One of the huge holes (a gap Darwin freely acknowledged) was the how of inheritance. That inheritance existed was empirically obvious, but the mechanism by which it occurred was a complete mystery. In subsequent years, the work of Mendel and others shed crucial light on the properties of that mechanism, but still left open the key question of how exactly it happened.

This puzzle was solved in the 1950’s, with a central breakthrough being the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. The fact that DNA is composed of two strands bound together, each carrying essentially the same information, meant that it can be split and copied, allowed the genetic code to be copied and transmitted from one cell to another in cell division, and ultimately from one individual to another in reproduction.

It is hard to overstate the impact of this achievement, which totally revolutionized the methods and approach of biology, ultimately leading to modern molecular biology, gene sequencing (including the Human Genome Project), reconstruction of phylogenetic trees, gene therapies, genetically modified organisms, and new medical diagnostic tools. All of this depends crucially on the discovery of the role and structure of DNA, firmly placing those discoveries among the most important of modern science.

But who then do we credit for this remarkable achievement? The names that readily come to mind are Watson and Crick, that dynamic duo at Cambridge immortalized in Watson’s The double helix (I recommend the Norton Critical Edition). If one looks to the Nobel Committee for guidance, a less well known name is added to those of Watson and Crick: Maurice Wilkins. Wilkins worked at King’s College London, where empirical data was collected that was vital to Watson and Crick’s ability to build the celebrated double helix model. The three were jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.

Missing from this pantheon, however, is Rosalind Franklin: the person who painstakingly collected and analyzed that empirical data, including X-ray crystallography described by J. D. Bernal as “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance every taken”. It was her methodical study of DNA (which was already widely believed to be crucial in the transmission of genetic information due to the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment) that led to the key insights into DNA’s structure. She herself understood well in advance of Watson and Crick’s breakthrough that what she called the B Form of DNA almost certainly had a double helix structure, but chose to complete her analysis of the A Form (where there was still uncertainty regarding the structure) before engaging in what she considered the speculative business of building models before all the data was in.

Yet while she methodically collected and studied, the impatient boys up the road gained indirect access to her images and measurements, data that was crucial to their model building, apparently without Franklin every knowing how much they’d obtained, and how important it had been. Franklin worked under Wilkins at King’s but was barely on speaking terms with him, and there is no evidence that she knew that Wilkins had shared some of her key data with Watson, or that a UK Medical Research Council review process gave Watson indirect access to detailed summaries of her work. Her untimely death five years later due to cancer was almost a decade before Watson’s book first publicly discussed the back channels he’d used to access her data. It seems likely, then, that she never fully understood how important her own work was to their achievements, and Watson’s deprecating portrayal of Franklin both as a person and as a scientist in his book did little to improve her reputation.

In fact, however, Franklin was clearly a gifted and dedicated scientist who made numerous valuable contributions in her short life in areas such the structure of coals, the structure of viruses, and the structure of DNA. Her work on DNA, for example, included the design and application of new imaging equipment, the collection of numerous of images from different angles, and the laborious hand calculations needed to extract quantitative measurements from those images. At the time of Watson and Crick’s famous model building, Franklin was trying to finish up her work at King’s so she could start a new position at Birkbeck, a move already delayed several months. Would she have developed the double helix model on her own if she’d been better supported at King’s, less distracted by the move? We’ll never know. It is clear, however, that her data was vital to Watson and Crick’s success, providing the empirical foundation for their theoretical leap.

Why, then, was she not recognized by the Nobel committee in 1962, alongside Watson, Crick, and Wilkins? The short, simple answer is that she was dead by then, and there are no posthumous Nobel Prizes. Less clear, though, is whether she would have gotten the award if she’d still been alive. As well as prohibiting posthumous awards, the Nobel rules also limit the number of co-recipients to three, and Watson, Crick, and Wilkins formed a full set. It would be pretty hard to justify bumping either Watson or Crick from the podium, since their paper contained the key theoretical breakthrough and would likely have the most significant long-term impact. Wilkins, on the other hand, was a different matter. He’d done little to contribute to Franklin’s work, and his own work had been far less significant to Watson and Crick’s insight. He was, however, her boss and a senior scientist, while she was effectively just a scientific hired hand at King’s, serving a two year position and moving on. And, of course, she was a woman, and the Nobels have not been kind to women, especially in the sciences. We can obviously never know what would have happened had she still been alive in 1962, but it seems naive to feel any certainty that she would have been recognized in Stockholm if she had lived.

For people looking to learn more there’s lots on-line, with all the associated pros and cons. Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA is a very nice biography and certainly helped a great deal in writing this. The epilogue to that work makes a nice antidote to the not entirely convincing epilogue to Watson’s The double helix.

Rosalind Franklin at the microscope. Image from the National Library of Medicines Profiles in Science project.

Rosalind Franklin at the microscope. Image from the National Library of Medicine's Profiles in Science project.

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