In The Field

ACS: Rosalind Franklin’s missed chances to solve DNA

It is well documented that Rosalind Franklin was a difficult person for some people to get along with. It’s also widely held that James Watson and Francis Crick based their structure of DNA on Franklin’s work. Watson and Crick went on to get the Nobel prize for their work. Franklin wasn’t mentioned – although she couldn’t have won the prize because she had died in 1958 and the Nobel prize cannot be given posthumously.

Lynne Osman Elkin, professor emeritus at California State University, East Bay, has made a detailed study of Franklin, and the different personalities involved in DNA’s deciphering in the period right after the war. And the personalities are forceful, dominating the story. Elkin spoke today in the history of chemistry session.

Elkin says that Franklin missed two perfect opportunities to realise what the structure of DNA was in 1952. The first is well documented – Franklin, a physical chemist with no expertise in organic crystallography, went to consult Dorothy Hodgkin, who was at Oxford University. Franklin at this time was at King’s College London, where she and Maurice Wilkins, the third recipient of the DNA Nobel had a particularly stormy and uncommunicative relationship.

Franklin apparently had three possible solutions for what the space group of DNA might be. If Hodgkin had taken the time to look through the piles of data that Franklin presented her with, then her trained organic crystallographer’s eye would have spotted that two of those three structures were impossible, says Elkin. Franklin had the answer in her hands but didn’t realise it. Unfortunately, so the story goes, Hodgkin fobbed off Franklin, and sent her to talk to a postdoc, Jack Dunitz.

Dorothy Hodgkin had also trained a young crystallographer, Pauline Cowan, who later married and became Pauline Harrison, and a professor at Sheffield University, UK.

Franklin was employed at King’s by John Randall, director of the Medical Research Council, and developer of radar. Wilkins had, according to Elkin, complained to Randall that Franklin didn’t have any data becuase she was no good and making models of molecules. In fact, Franklin simply disliked Wilkins so much that she didnt’ share any of her remarkable data with him.

Elkin has interviewed Pauline (Cowan) Harrison, and says that Randall offered to employ the young crystallographer to help Franklin out. But Randall did this in a very undiplomatic way and without asking Franklin first, Elkin says. Franklin was furious and rejected Harrison.

This was Franklin’s second missed chance to solve the structure of DNA says Elkin. Pauline Cowan could have easily interpreted Franklin’s data, seen the C2 space group that had been identified and predicted the correct backbone structure for DNA, Elkin surmises. “It should have been the Franklin-Cowan structure,” she says.

Elkin is clearly a Franklin fan, and doesn’t agree with the accusations that Franklin had no idea about interpreting data. “If you look at Franklin’s notebooks you can see she was capable of solving the data,” says Elkin. But there were gaps Franklin’s her knowledge, she says. “Pauline was a trained crystallographer. She complemented in knowledge what Franklin lacked.”

So, if Franklin hadn’t been so irked at some of the people at King’s, and if Randall had been more diplomatic when trying to hire Pauline Cowan, things might have turned out quite differently. At least for history. The structure of DNA and it’s importance would have remained intact whoever discovered it.


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