What if Wilkins and Franklin had been able to work together?

August 24, 2016 • 12:30 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Today I was interviewed by the French radio station, France-Culture (colloquially known as France-Cul), for a programme about Rosalind Franklin, the King’s College, London, researcher whose data were used by Watson and Crick as the basis of their double helix model of the structure of DNA.

Much of the discussion, inevitably, revolved around the point raised by Jim Watson at the recent Francis Crick Centenary event in Cold Spring Harbor – but for chance events, we would speak of the ‘Franklin-Wilkins’ structure of DNA rather than the ‘Watson-Crick’ structure. During the interview I found myself coming up with an alternative version of history, in which we could have got to the Franklin-Wilkins structure of DNA, with rather interesting consequences.

I have been thinking about ‘what if’ versions of history for an article on another part of the history of DNA that I am writing – if it’s accepted, I’ll let you know; if it’s rejected, I’ll publish it here. [JAC: What are we? A garbage bin for rejected pieces? 🙁 ]

As the British historian Richard Evans points out in his excellent book Altered Pasts, which is all about ‘counterfactual history’, there are many problems with this approach to history, and most examples of it are weak attempts at wishful thinking and many have a clear political agenda; few cast any light on history or how it happened. Nevertheless – here’s my ‘jeu d’esprit’: What would have happened if Wilkins and Franklin had got on?

What happened

The main reason why Watson and Crick were able to come up with the double helix structure of DNA in early 1953 is that their competitors at King’s – Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins – could not work together. Franklin and Wilkins had strikingly different personalities, but above all they were misled about how their work was to be coordinated, thanks to the behaviour of the lab head at King’s, John Randall.

Rosalind Franklin

Wilkins was Randall’s deputy and had been working on the structure of DNA for some time, using X-ray crystallography. Randall decided to recruit a new researcher with greater expertise in this technique, Rosalind Franklin. As far as Wilkins understood it, Franklin was to work with him, or even be his assistant; the appointment letter to Franklin from Randall made clear that she alone would be working on the structure of DNA.

Wilkins was on holiday when Franklin arrived; when he returned, he found a highly-skilled, assertive young woman not only apparently in charge of ‘his’ project, but supervising his PhD student, Ray Gosling. A simple conversation between Franklin, Wilkins and Randall could have sorted things out, but it never happened (Wilkins didn’t see the Franklin appointment letter for decades, and was shocked when he did – he had no idea, the poor sap).

John Randall

Whether Randall wanted to kick Wilkins up the backside, or to get the two researchers to compete is not clear; whatever the case, the result was catastrophic – as well as the structural misunderstanding of who did what and who was in charge, there was a major clash of personality. The introverted Wilkins became even more withdrawn, and the outgoing and argumentative Franklin became frustrated.

They were unable to cooperate, and as a result the work in King’s did not get off the ground properly. Wilkins and Franklin were separated, each working on a different form of the DNA molecule – Franklin worked on the drier A form, which gave misleadingly precise X-ray images, while Wilkins worked on the biologically more significant B form, which gave blurrier images. They spent much of 1952 this way, not talking to each other, not collaborating, not exchanging ideas.

Franklin became dismayed and fed up of the atmosphere at King’s, and decided to leave for nearby Birkbeck College and to move from the study of DNA to virus structure.

Meanwhile, at the end of the year, the Cambridge lab, where Watson and Crick were based, heard that the US chemist Linus Pauling was turning to the study of DNA. The head of the Cambridge lab, Bragg, had previously forbidden Watson and Crick from pursuing their unofficial interest in DNA structure, as the problem was the ‘property’ of King’s.

With the threat of being scooped by Pauling, Bragg changed his mind and told Watson and Crick to start working on the problem; they were also given a semi-public report from King’s, containing summaries of the research they were doing on DNA, which included some decisive data from Rosalind Franklin.

(This is the source of the oft-repeated charge that they ‘stole’ her data; Watson’s later claim that Wilkins showed him an X-ray photo of the B form taken by Gosling (*not* Franklin!) and that this was the decisive insight, can be dismissed; the key step for building the model was found in the numbers. Ironically, this information was very similar to data presented in November 1951 by Franklin in a talk at which Watson was present; by his own admission, he didn’t take notes and didn’t listen closely, musing instead about her hair and her dress sense… More on all that here; that is not the point of this post, however!)

These data were what Watson and Crick used to build their double helix structure. They – or rather. Crick – could see the implications of those data where Franklin had not because Crick had recently developed a mathematical procedure for turning the 2-dimensional data produced by a molecular helix into a 3-dimensional model; he had published this in Nature in October 1952. This was pretty complex stuff, and Crick was one of the few people in the world to know how to do this.

By the beginning of March 1953, they had finished their model; at the same time, Franklin, working on her own, had realised that DNA was made of two strands, going in opposite directions, with the bases that connect the two strands organised in an infinite number of ways, providing the variability that could encode genetic information. She never got any further, because the Cambridge duo beat her to it, using her own data.

The double helix structure appeared in Nature in April 1953, together with two empirical articles, one by Franklin, the other by Wilkins. The Watson and Crick article included the acknowledgement “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers”.

Franklin went on to make major contributions to virus structure, but died of ovarian cancer in April 1958. In October 1962, following the cracking of the genetic code that summer, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for determining the double helix structure of DNA.

What if?

Now, what if Franklin and Wilkins had been able to work together? What if Randall had been straightforward and explained how he wanted them to work – as partners, or even with Wilkins in charge (he was the more ‘senior’ in academic terms)? What would have happened?

Things would have turned out rather differently. Wilkins and Franklin would still have rubbed each other the wrong way, there would still have been rows, but it seems virtually certain that Watson and Crick, as a duo who shaped subsequent events, would not have got a look-in. By mid-1952, Wilkins and Franklin would have obtained data from both A- and B-forms of DNA, and would be trying to understand how they were structured.

Other people in the King’s lab were suggesting that the molecule might be a helix (this is what happened); Wilkins and Franklin, however, did not have the mathematical tools to work through the calculations and turn their 2-D data into a 3-D model.

And then something lucky happened – in summer 1952, Wilkins’ friend, Crick, showed him a manuscript he was writing, based on work for his PhD on horse haemoglobin, showing how to analyse data from helical molecules, using the specific example of the keratin molecule. Crick hoped to submit the article to Nature, and asked Wilkins to give him his opinion.

Wilkins read through it and realised its significance for his work with Franklin on DNA; after a brief hesitation, he showed the unpublished paper to Franklin. She, too, saw how they could use it, and over the coming weeks the pair worked through the maths, and then turned to building a structural model of the B-form of DNA.

By October 1952, they had finished the model, which was a beautiful double helix. They submitted an article to Nature, which appeared in December 1952, including an Acknowledgement that their work had been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished results and ideas of Francis Crick. In 1962, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Maurice Wilkins and, posthumously (this was still allowed at the time), to Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958.

Watson never got to work on DNA, nor did Crick, who both had very minor places in the history of science and were forgotten. Much of the history of 20th century genetics remained basically the same, but the pace and focus of work was different, lacking the intellectual leadership of Crick and the obsessive focus of Watson.

Wilkins’ life was pretty much the same, and Franklin’s name was writ much larger in the annals of biology – her name was taught to all high school students when they learned of the Franklin-Wilkins structure of DNA. However, in the early 21st century, a campaign began on the internet, arguing that Crick had been robbed of the rewards he was due, as without his method, Wilkins and Franklin would never have been able to crack the problem.

So what?

Well, probably, not a lot. But it’s interesting, no?

44 thoughts on “What if Wilkins and Franklin had been able to work together?

  1. Very cool Jerry!

    But, thinking of women being overlooked, I had a classic incident today, which made me laugh as it’s a while since these were common (at least in my hearing).

    At a conference (all players here male, except me). Presenter #1 is asked a question by a well-known male scientist — let’s say “but what about the ‘A’ issue”, to which I interjected with the next question “it’s not really “A”, so much as B through D”. Male scientist (and presenter) agree with me, not thoughtfully, audience concers, etc.

    Second presenter, half an hour later, says: “And, as well-known male scientist just noted, it’s important to remember that the issue here is B through D”.


      1. The change in tense is confusing, from

        “… and would be trying to understand how they were structured.”


        “Other people in the King’s lab were suggesting”.

      2. Watching ‘Simpsons’, so …
        House style : roofed (waterproof, one hopes); walled (also waterproof, one hopes); wind-proof windows. Doors taht only open on authorised demand. Other details – not important.

  2. Erwin Chargaff claimed in one of his books that he had met Watson and Crick and told them about the base paring rules now named after him, and that this clinched the helical structure of DNA in the minds of Watson and Crick. I’m not sure if this helped understanding the helical structure, but it might have helped.

    1. Alexander’s point is important. The A/T G/C ratios from Chargaff were key, and then the realization, via ball-and-stick modeling, that they’d only pair if the strands were anti-parallel. Which led to the replication and then coding insights.

  3. In contrast to Evans, many historians think there are benefits to musing about counterfactual history (sometimes referred to as alternative history or what-if history). Certainly, counterfactual history about the American Civil War could probably fill a small library. It assumes that a person had the choice to do X instead of Y or some event took place that really didn’t, for example a storm that interrupted a general’s battle plans. It then speculates as to what would have happened if a person made a different choice. The benefit is that it allows policymakers and individuals to think hard and deep about decisions because depending on the decision vastly different results might flow.

    On the other hand, perhaps counterfactual history is nothing but a parlor game. I say this in light of previous discussions on the lack of free will. Maybe the outcomes that actually took place could not have been any different. I will leave it to others to comment on this, since as a non-scientist I find the free will debate agonizingly hard to grasp, although I do try hard.

  4. Really nice take down. I too think the outcome would be quite different under a cooperative atmosphere.

    Alas, science ultimately is about providing greater predictive explanations to nature. As humans we will continue to step over one another assembling that knowledge. That competitive edge makes us a bit childish and vitriolic towards one another but also provides a great deal of ambition to uncover new discoveries.

  5. A more radical historical mash-up would have been if Darwin had been aware of Mandel’s work.

    As well as clearing up his confusions about heredity, teaming up with a monk might have helped bolster his theory against criticism from the church.

    1. Coincidentally enough, a colleague of mine recently showed me an article in the May 2016 American Society of Cell Biology Newsletter by one John Fleischman entitled “Mendel’s “lost” paper throws light on Origins of Reviewer #3″ in which it is stated that Darwnin had a copy of Mendel’s paper (one of 40 reprints Mendel had printed), but that it was never opened. No reference for this claim is given, but if true, it shows that your scenario nearly happened.

    2. A *much* more plausible thought is that why wasn’t Mendel aware of Darwin’s work. Mendel published in an obscure journal but in 1865 On The Origin was a European-wide best seller.

  6. Another possibility to consider, which doesn’t require considering free-will, is to wonder what would have happened of Franklin didn’t die of cancer when she did.

  7. Very interesting, though I expect Crick, if not Watson, would have still made a name for himself through his other insights, e.g. the sequence hypothesis, the central dogma, and the genetic code.

  8. Interesting article and thanks for posting it, Matthew.

    I have doubts about Wilkins and Franklin working together well. Especially as contrasted with Crick and Watson who seemed to get on famously (but maybe I’m remembering wrongly) while Franklin and Wilkins were, as you describe, like oil and water.

    I think working relationships are hard to over estimate. I’ve seen many jobs go swimmingly or directly into the ditch based on interpersonal relations.

    Now if Watson had never seen the RF images — that might have prevented them making the leap to the structure — at least for a while.

  9. By the way, is it true that at the time Nobel Prizes could be awarded posthumously, or is that merely part of the alternate historical scenario?

      1. It was only true in extreme circumstances.
        The winner must have been alive at the time of their nomination for that years prize (they changed the rule in 1974 – the award is made to a living scientist).

        Only two people have received a Nobel in this manner, neither of them receiving a science prize.

        In any case, even if science prizes had been included in those extreme cases Franklin, having died in 1958, would not have been eligible.
        There was a more recent instance, that of Ralph Steinman, who, unknown to the Nobel committee, died after the award was decided but a couple of days before the award was announced. The committee took the view that that award should stand as they had been following the rules in good faith (believing that they were awarding the prize to a living scientist).
        Franklin’s death would have also placed her outside the scope of that award.

  10. It’s not only in biology that major contributions by women scientists were overlooked in the 1950s and 1960s. In my own field, astronomy, it’s now regarded as deplorable that Jocelyn Bell Burnell didn’t share in the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for her contribution to the discovery of pulsars.

    The U.K. Medical Research Council named a small genomics research centre adjacent to the Sanger Institute after Rosalind Franklin in the early 1990s, but it closed in 2005.

    1. It is rumoured that Fred Hoyle protested so vociferously about the injustice to Jocelyn Bell that an annoyed Nobel committee would not award him a share of the 1983 prize for his work on nucleosynthesis.

      Another fairly disgusting piece of discrimation was the failure to exclude the brilliant Chien Shiung Wu from a share of the 1957 prize.

  11. Hello Dr. Coyne,  I just received an e-mail from NCSE notifying me that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is bringing a travelling exhibit entitled Exploring Human Origins to the Skokie Public Library from September 9 through October 3, 2016.  I checked the Skokie library website and found that the exhibit is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and the Peter Buck Human Origins Fund. No wonder that one program during the exhibit is entitled Where Do We Come From? Religious and Evolutionary Perspectives.  Take a look: Exploring Human Origins | Skokie Public Library | | | | | |


    | | | | Exploring Human Origins | Skokie Public Library | |



     Regards,  Phillip Solzan 

  12. These “semi-public reports” are a dangerous thing. I strongly advise authors not to show unpublished work to colleagues. Wait until you get it published and the whole world can see it.

    I once gave a disc with teaching materials written by me to a friend, to help her prepare for an important exam. She suddenly died. Years later, the editor of a textbook in preparation showed to me some chapters submitted by a co-author. The co-author was my late friend’s boss, and the chapters were cropped from my files. As you can guess, that professor had found the disc left behind by her young co-worker and, thinking that the texts were now orphaned, decided to make use of them… It was a nasty surprise for me. But also for her, to think that she is plagiarizing just a dead author and then suddenly to confront a living author.

    I rushed to publish the texts in the Web. She changed them, to worse of course, and submitted the revised version for the textbook.

  13. “France-Cul” is not a very polite abbreviation. Do I sense passive agressiveness? Or just the normal english scorn for things french?

      1. Well, I think it’s aimed at the often pretentious tone. France Culture claims to be the best in the whole galaxy, and while many programs are interesting, most speakers suffer from selfishness.

        Hence the aggressive nickname.

        1. I listen to France Culture quite often. They have excellent and daily science programs, their news programs offer intelligent analysis, and they don’t report on sport. And they have an intelligent web site, checking for past programs is easy. Of course android interferes with is own app, so you have to look for their own website.

  14. Yeah, well, the story still requires Francis Crick, doesn’t it? In real history, nobody ever quite knew what to make of it until he did.

  15. According to Matthew’s (real) timeline above, Rosalind would have had both the data – from her and Raymond Gosling’s X-ray pictures – and the mathematical tools – from Cricks 1952 Nature paper.
    Why would she require Wilkins?
    The imagined scenario unfortunately requires too many leaps of faith for it to be a plausible alternative history.
    Franklin and Wilkins would need to have to mastered Cricks mathematical modeling technique AND have figured out the base pairing rules and Franklin would have had to agree to drop her research on the A form and instead worked on Wilkins B form.
    I suspect that a more plausible, albeit depressing, alternative history is that Rosalind continued working on the A form and, lacking the insight about the base pairing rules, wasted several years on the wrong model.
    During that time some other group would have figured out the real model – perhaps even one led by a giant in the field of X-ray crystallography – Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkins.

  16. I can’t help but wonder whether Randall told Wilkins the situation before Franklin arrived but did so in a deliberately casual way, so as not to start a ruckus.
    And I cannot help but wonder whether Wilkins’ attitude toward Franklin was due to her gender, her relative youth, and her Jewish identity.
    It would not be unusual for such a situation to occur, and for the lack of insight to carry it forward.
    Been there, done that — or, rather, had it done to me.

  17. “…Franklin’s name was writ much larger in the annals of biology…”
    There is, now, the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, just outside of Chicago. It included the Chicago Medical School, among its many health career schools.

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