Matthew’s Guardian piece on Franklin, Watson, and Crick

June 24, 2015 • 9:30 am

As you may know, Matthew Cobb’s engaging new book, Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code, came out in the UK in June, and will come out in the US on July 7.  You might want to preorder it if if you want a cracking good story of modern science, one that takes up where James Watson’s The Double Helix left off.

Partly to publicize his book, as well as to call attention to a question that’s occupied scientists and science historians for years, Matthew wrote a new piece in the Guardian called “Sexism in science: did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data?” Several people have answered this question with a “yes,” based largely on W&C having calculated the DNA structure using data and photographs produced by Franklin and by Raymond Gosling, her Ph.D. student at King’s College. A bit of Matthew’s article:

At the end of January 1953, Watson visited King’s, where Wilkins showed him an X-ray photo that was subsequently used in Franklin’s Nature article. This image, often called ‘Photo 51’, had been made by Raymond Gosling, a PhD student who had originally worked with Wilkins, had then been transferred to Franklin (without Wilkins knowing), and was now once more being supervised by Wilkins, as Franklin prepared to leave the terrible atmosphere at King’s and abandon her work on DNA.

Photo 51 taken by Rosalind Franklin and R.G. Gosling
Photo 51 taken by Rosalind Franklin and R. G. Gosling

Watson recalled that when he saw the photo – which was far clearer than any other he had seen – ‘my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.’ According to Watson, photo 51 provided the vital clue to the double helix. But despite the excitement that Watson felt, all the main issues, such as the number of strands and above all the precise chemical organisation of the molecule, remained a mystery. A glance at photo 51 could not shed any light on those details.

What Watson and Crick needed was far more than the idea of a helix – they needed precise observations from X-ray crystallography. Those numbers were unwittingly provided by Franklin herself, included in a brief informal report that was given to Max Perutz of Cambridge University.

In February 1953, Perutz passed the report to Bragg, and thence to Watson and Crick.

Crick now had the material he needed to do his calculations.

I’ll send you to Matthew’s article to see his conclusion about the purported theft (and to learn some history of science), but I’ll add the comment he emailed me about his Guardian piece:

It’s a highly compressed summary of the chapter on the double helix. I was annoyed by comments around [Tim] Hunt that claimed W&C stole her data, which they didn’t. Plus I wanted to publicise the book!

The article suffers from not having been proofed/subbed, so there is one use of “data was” that got commenters very cross, a “no question that” which confused some US readers [JAC: this confused me too; what Matthew meant was “it wasn’t the case that”], and a Freudian conflation of Watson and Wilkins into Watkins!

I think Matthew’s take is accurate, and should pretty much settle the issue; and I also agree that had she lived (she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of just 38), Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Wilkins, Crick, and Watson. Since Nobels can be awarded to only three people in one category, see how Matthew thinks this should have happened.


46 thoughts on “Matthew’s Guardian piece on Franklin, Watson, and Crick

  1. Actually, Matthew’s book is being released early in the U.S. and will come out tomorrow, at least according to Thought you’d all like to know.

    1. And fittingly Jerry’s comes out in the UK tomorrow too! I will be looking for (nice!) reviews to send to Matthew or Greg to put up…

    2. When I just looked up the book (it is on my wish list, and I really should pre-order it soon, especially since I recently bought The Double Helix!), it still says “July 7 2015” for the release date …

      Great article by the way!

    1. Nor did I. It made perfect sense to me, and it’s a phrase I use. We use UK English in NZ. I’m always getting red wiggly lines on-line because American English dominates there.

      In fact, the American structure here should probably be called an Americanism, as it’s more likely they’re the ones that changed it from the original.

    2. I think the confusion US readers (which included me in the confused category, as it did Jerry) experienced with the phrase comes from its similarity to the phrase (common in the US at least) “no question but that,” which has the opposite meaning — essentially equivalent to “it is unquestionably the case that.”

      1. My interpretation of “no question that” was that it meant “they certainly did” – which startled me somewhat. I gather it means (as used by Matthew) “no suggestion that”. The opposite of what I thought.


      2. I’m reminded of the phrase, “I could care less” (when the speaker means the exact opposite).

        I’m always tempted to reply, “Well, do so.”

  2. Franklin may not have received a Nobel, but she gets the prize for being far more well known that poor Maurice Wilkins, at least in the wider non-scientific community. Most have never even heard of him, even though they’ve heard of Crick and Watson, and in the same breath mention Franklin. Franklin also seems to have become one of the figureheads for women in science and rightly or wrongly, a symbol of what’s wrong with men and science. I guess that’s a bit of a win, posthumously and without any financial compensation.

    but still, there’s poor forgotten and ignored Maurice…lots of discussions have been had around the idea that nobody knows any scientists excepting Darwin, Einstein, Newton and probably Watson & Crick. Some can add Franklin, and then thanks to tv and movies add Goodall and Fossey. That’s sad. I wish books like Dr. Cobb’s would get more attention, that people would at least know a handful of other scientists, but that would require freeing up brain space otherwise occupied by the sports, tv/movies, and music stars. We as a culture just have no interest in science history. It was certainly never offered in any of the course catalogs I ever saw.

    1. Getting the public interested in history these days seems to be nearly impossible and when the word science is added they really fall asleep. It’s too bad because a sound education in the history of any subject is needed to make the best progress ahead.

      1. fantastic, thank you. BBC Radio 4 is the greatest thing for a science/history nerd like me, best thing I ever finding their podcasts on my iphone! wish we could have such a great media outlet as BBC in all its forms in the US. PBS is adequate, but limited.

      1. great. I doubt many in the US would know Rutherford (he got a blurb in my Chem 101 textbook) but then I’m pretty sure most ‘mercuns couldn’t find NZ on a map. actually, I’m pretty sure they can’t. Actually, I”m pretty sure I’ve seen a CNN person on the street video where people thought Australia was Iraq or North Korea and that’s where we should invade next!

        1. Right. Someone (Lawrence Krauss?) reflected on some shameful pct. of U.S. college (?) students unable to locate countries on a map with the names of countries on it.

      2. I think you’ll find that Rutherford has a fair amount of recognition in Britain but most people would assume he was British.

      1. I admit I’d never heard of them. I’m an admirer of Archie Carr and Peter C. Pritchard, but nobody knows who they were either, unless you are a turtle nerd. Not that they were/are as important to humanity as to herpetology. guess you don’t go into science to be an icon.

    2. I think in the US you could add Feynman to the list of scientists with name recognition (no doubt, to the continuing vexation of Murray Gell-Mann) — given the popularity of Feynman’s general-readership books; his bohemian, bongo-playing persona; the late-life publicity he received in connection with the Challenger disaster; and the TV movie about that disaster released a couple years ago in which he was portrayed by actor William Hurt.

      You might also now be able to include on the list Richard Dawkins, although he has become an icon (both pro and con) at least as much for his outspoken atheism as for his substantive writing on biology.

      For laymen with in interest in science, name recognition extends to several of the physicists pictured in the famous photograph taken at the Fifth Solvay Conference in 1927, including Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Pauli, Born, Dirac, and de Broglie, as well as older statesmen such as Einstein, Planck, Currie, and Lorentz.

      1. Feynman and Schrödinger maybe on the increase of recognition thanks to the Big Bang Theory tv show, even though it means that they only know about bongos and live/dead cats. I know I’ve read/heard that in the UK polls, Currie tends to be the sole female scientist known. Interestingly, a recent podcast I listened to, maybe the Naked Scientists, did a special on James Clerk Maxwell with “man in the street’ interviews in Scotland but failed to find more than one or two who had even heard the name before. So, it’s not just a US thing, nor I would imagine is it solely a modern trend. As for Dawkins, I’d bet most people who are not atheists have no idea who he is, excepting fundies who are particularly outraged by him.
        I’d not heard of the Feynman/Hurt movie, I’ll have to check into that. Sad to hear Mr. Hurt has pancreatic cancer. I hope he pulls through but the odds are most likely not in his favor.

  3. The rules relative to award of Nobel Prizes is quite specific. They are expressly forbidden from being awarded posthumously. Therefore, since Franklin was dead when the prize was awarded, she was ineligible for it. Period, end of story. The notion that she was robbed is total piffle.

    Actually, a far better case could be made for Lise Meitner, who most assuredly should have shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Otto Hahn and Chien-Shiung Wu who most assuredly should have shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Lee and Yang.

      1. Without a doubt Lise Meitner is the best case of a woman who unquestionably deserved but never received the Nobel Prize. She was not just an experimental scientist – her theoretical work provided principal explanations for both the Auger effect and nuclear fission itself. The papers that Hahn published which earned him the prize were published when he dared not include Meitner’s name as she was Jewish this was Nazi Germany). Hahn I believe later tried to get the Nobel committee to also award a prize to Meitner on numerous occasions. So BOTH sexism AND racism denied Meitner the Nobel prize that she so rightly deserved.

        1. In fairness to Hahn, he was instrumental in helping to spirit Meitner out of Germany under the noses of the Gestapo.

        2. I think an equally good case could be made for Madame Wu who performed the experiment that demonstrated that parity was violated in weak interactions and that Lee and Yang were right.

          This is not a trivial observation. It basically says that left handed and right handed coordinate systems are not equivalent to each other and the laws of physics are slightly different in each of them. One of the many counter intuitive things in quantum mechanics.

        3. It does not excuse the lack of recognition at the time but, happily, some redress has been provided by the naming of element 109 after her.

    1. I agree that she wasn’t robbed of the Nobel, but she certainly deserved a share if she’d lived.

      The thing that really bugs me is Watson’s unbalanced account in The Double Helix. He comes over as arrogant and unfair towards Franklin, and the book was rightly criticised back then. It’s one of the most tedious books I’ve ever read.

      1. I have read that Watson is something of a misogynist. And in fairness, I understand that Franklin was not the easiest person in the world to get along with.

      2. “unbalanced” or “candid”? Watson certainly doesn’t spare himself in his account, in fact reading between the lines I don’t think he does himself justice in scientific terms. He and Crick must have been much smarter than they are made to appear in the book.

        Watson is quite candid about his impressions of people and that includes Franklin, with whom (obviously) W&C – and Maurice Wilkins – had difficult relations. He could easily have rewritten it to gloss over the difficulties but he didn’t. I’m not sure that makes his account ‘unbalanced’. Maybe ‘subjective’.

        I most certainly didn’t find the book tedious, it reads like a good whodunnit.

  4. This certainly does clear up things for me. I did not think that W & C had stolen data from Franklin but that Wilkins had sort of given it to them. But I see that the data moved in a more circuitous route.
    But I am curious. If the key data was passed on from Franklin –> Perutz, which was possibly required of her, and that then unpublished data goes –> Bragg and then to W & C, why is that not sort of wrong on the part of Perutz and/or Bragg?

    1. Probably because of the brash (frank) style in which Watson wrote The Double Helix, therefore he must be the villain (rather than Bragg, Perutz or others.

      People overlook that he deliberately wrote in that style as that’s how it looked to him at the time, and they also overlook his postscript in which he is much more generous towards Rosalind Franklin.

      Watson & Crick were also equally competitive towards Linus Pauling, but nobody seems to criticise them for that.

  5. Thanks so much for the link. Really enjoyed the article and looking forward to digesting Cobb’s book. Two things stand out:

    1. Am I missing something in the US? The Guardian seems to very routinely publish good science stuff.

    2. Sixty years later it’s easy to look back and think of how easily this stuff was worked out. Imagine doing this stuff from scratch. Jeesh. They didn’t even have words for half the stuff in our molec bio textbooks. Truly impressive.

  6. Since Nobels can be awarded to only three people in one category, see how Matthew thinks this should have happened.

    I haven’t read Matthew’s book, but given that x-ray crystallography played an important role in the discovery, it is relatively easy to think that they could’ve given Nobels in both Physiology/Medicine and in Chemistry to the people involved in the effort. Medicine goes to the team that put the structure together and Chem to the team that took the critical x-ray data.

    1. We had a discussion on this issue on Larry Moran’s blog some time ago and he made the suggestion that Prof. Cobb makes in his book.

  7. There ought to be formal mention made by the Nobel organization regarding luminaries like Franklin and Meitner.

  8. In the 21 August 2003 issue of Nature, there’s an interesting essay by Watson Fuller (of whom I know nothing) entitled Who said ‘helix’?, covering the same period.

  9. ‘Franklin was forceful and thrived on intellectual debate. Her friend Norma Sutherland recalled: “Her manner was brusque and at times confrontational – she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this.”’

    “’Tis friction’s brisk, rough rub ‘at pr’vides the vital spark!” –Alexander Reid Martin (Adulterated by Wayne Tyson)

    “. . . Their behaviour was cavalier, to say the least, but there is no evidence that it was driven by sexist disdain: Perutz, Bragg, Watson and Crick would have undoubtedly behaved the same way had the data been produced by Maurice Wilkins.”

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. “Undoubtedly” may be a popular term in journalism, but it lacks the discipline required for proof.

    Alas, we will never know exactly what went on, and neither will the author, but if any discussion should live on, this one should, if for no other reason to keep the question open. “Races” for achievement in science are, I suppose, inevitable, but one always knows what one has done and what one has not done, even if the thunder and glory has been stolen by one’s colleagues or other, perhaps weaker minds. For me, Franklin always will be held in high esteem, if “only” for the work she did, and the insights she had, regardless of whether they were “stolen” or gave a leg up to others. The jury, to me, is still out on Franklin, and I will let my self-appointed betters carry on under the burdens of their own loads of certitude, and whatever secrets they can’t keep from themselves.

  10. On the “data was” question, I continue to make an effort to pair “data” with a plural verb when I think about it (which isn’t always) — and it grates, very mildly, when I come across it paired with a singular one (if I notice, which is even more rare). But a significant number of grammarians (at least, of those who aren’t prescriptivism fetishists) seem to favor (or at least favor allowing) the use of “data” (and its bugaboo cousin, “media”) as collective nouns — like “group” or “team” or “family” — requiring singular verbs. See the take on the issue in this xkcd comic.

    The Guardian commenters who’ve gotten themselves in a tizzy about this are a fussy lot.

  11. “Since Nobels can be awarded to only three people in one category, see how Matthew thinks this should have happened.”

    The Nobel committees for chemistry and for physiology&medicine are independent of each other and based on different institutions (Stockholm University and Karolinska Institute, respectively). Any coordination between the two would be unlikely.

Leave a Reply