Cobb and Comfort on Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to solving the structure of DNA

April 25, 2023 • 10:30 am

Today, as I’ve said, is the 70th anniversary of the publication of the structure of DNA, which began a scientific revolution via three papers published in Nature‘s April 25, 1953 issue:  one by Watson and Crick, one by Wilkins, Stokes, and Wilson, and the third by Franklin and Gosling. As you know, Watson and Crick, who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 along with Wilkins, who had worked with Franklin at King’s College London. (I’ve always been amazed that it took them 9 years to make the award.)

As Matthew has mentioned on this site before, Rosalind Franklin certainly deserved a Prize as well (probably sharing the Chemistry Prize with Wilkins since only three awards can be given in one category). Sadly, though, Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer before the Prizes were awarded. She was only 37. Here are two photos of her:

Left: Rosalind Franklin by Elliott & Fry, half-plate film negative, 11 June 1946, NPG x76929 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: © Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London.

Due largely to the hyperbole of Watson’s bestseller The Double Helix, a legend arose that Franklin had been cheated of the credit that was due her. As the story goes, Watson and Crick were shown one of her X-ray crystallography photos of DNA, the famous “photo 51”, which gave them key data needed to construct their double-helix model.  Franklin, many say, was robbed by the duplicity of Watson and Crick.

This story is false, as Matthew Cobb from Manchester and Nathaniel Comfort, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins,  reveal in a long piece in today’s Nature (click on screenshot below). In fact, Crick never even saw photograph 51 before it was published, and although there was some rivalry between the King’s and Cavendish teams, there was also a lot of cooperation.  The key to Watson and Crick’s successful model-building didn’t come from their snitching photograph 51, but in fact from a report by Max Perutz (who got the Nobel for Chemistry in 1962). As head of the Cambridge Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit, he participated, along with other MRC heads, in a scientific inspection of King’s College as a kind of informal analysis of the science going on there.

Perutz got the final report because he was on the inspection committee. And that report included details, with data, of what King’s was doing vis-à-vis DNA work  Further, Franklin knew that Perutz—at Cambridge (where Watson and Crick were working)—had access to all the data in the report, and she more or less invited Crick to have a look at Perutz’s report. It was that report that gave Watson and Crick the critical data that put them on the right track to build their double-helical model of DNA, with the struts of the helix running in opposite direction and with Gs pairing with Cs and As with Ts. The article below paints a very different picture of Franklin and her relations with Watson and Crick than the one that has become lore due to what Cobb and Comfort call Watson’s “semi-fictional” portrayal in The Double Helix.. Yes, the teams were in some sense competing, but they also were collaborating, and kept track of each other’s work.

The piece was jointly written by Matthew, who’s writing a biography of Crick, and Nathaniel Comfort, who’s writing a bio of Watson. Together they ransacked the scientific archives and reached the conclusion that Franklin was in every sense a crucial collaborator in the DNA work, not somebody spurned and sidelined as “the dark lady of DNA.” Indeed, Franklin became friends with both Watson and Crick after she left King’s for Birkbeck College, and even recuperated at the Cricks’ home after her cancer operation. Here’s a bit of the Nature paper that sums up Cobb’s and Comfort’s take:

In a full description of the structure in a paper submitted in August 1953 and published in 1954, Crick and Watson did attempt to set the record straight. They acknowledged that, without Franklin’s data, “the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible”, and implicitly referred to the MRC report as a “preliminary report” in which Franklin and Wilkins had “independently suggested that the basic structure of the paracrystalline [B] form is helical and contains two intertwined chains”. They also noted that the King’s researchers “suggest that the sugar-phosphate backbone forms the outside of the helix and that each chain repeats itself after one revolution in 34 Å”.

This clear acknowledgement of both the nature and the source of the information Watson and Crick had used has been overlooked in previous accounts of the discovery of the structure of DNA. As well as showing the Cambridge duo finally trying to do the right thing, It strengthens our case that Franklin was an equal member in a group of four scientists working on the structure of DNA. She was recognized by her colleagues as such, although that acknowledgement was both belated and understated. All this helps to explain one of the lasting enigmas of the affair — why neither Franklin nor Wilkins ever questioned how the structure had been discovered. They knew the answer, because they expected that Perutz would share his knowledge and because they had read Watson and Crick’s 1954 article.

Click below to read the article (it’s free):

I asked Matthew to write me a few lines about how this piece came to be, and he was more than generous: he wrote the following.

I’m writing a biography of Crick, Nathaniel Comfort is writing a biography of Watson. We first met in March 2022 and got on well together – we have been sharing information and insights ever since. This is a terrific experience as it enables us to chat about minor details and also explore interpretations. In August 2022, Nathaniel came to the UK. I encouraged him to visit Cambridge, to try and get the feel of what Watson must have felt when he went there in 1951. I decided to go down to meet him, and we agreed we would go to the Churchill College archives to see Franklin’s papers. All that material is available online (, and we didn’t expect to find anything new. We both had our understanding of what happened in 1953, and we didn;t expect to change this. Our visit was more a kind of homage or pilgrimage – the fetishistic fun of actually touching the documents!

To our surprise, we made two discoveries, going through the material together, discussing what they meant.

– We realised why Franklin was so keen on the A form of DNA which she was studying. Not only did it provide very sharp images, it also represented the *crystalline* form of DNA – she wasn’t interested in the paracrystalline B form, which was found at higher humidity, because it seemed to her to represent the loss of order – “the stuff just dissolves” she wrote in her notes.

– We also came across a draft article for Time magazine about the discovery, which had been sent to Franklin by the journalist Joan Bruce. This was known to have existed – it was the article for which the famous photos of Watson, Crick and the DNA model were taken – but it was never published and had never been noticed, as far as we are aware. The science content of the article is confused, but it strikingly presented the discovery as the joint work of King’s and Cambridge, which, of course, it was. This was very different to the Watson and Crick centred view you get from reading Watson’s semi-fictional account in The Double Helix.

We also came across a draft article for Time magazine about the discovery, which had been sent to Franklin by the journalist Joan Bruce. This was known to have existed – it was the article for which the famous photos of Watson, Crick and the DNA model were taken – but it was never published and had never been noticed, as far as we are aware. The science content of the article is confused, but it strikingly presented the discovery as the joint work of King’s and Cambridge, which, of course, it was. This was very different to the Watson and Crick centred view you get from reading Watson’s semi-fictional account in The Double Helix.On the basis of these two discoveries, we decided to write an article for Nature, to be published on the 70th anniversary of the publication of the three articles. Our aim was to introduce these new elements and to argue (again) that the story in Watson’s account of him seeing Photograph 51 and gaining a decisive insight into the structure was hokum (this point has been made several times, with no consequence on what the general public believes!) – much more significant was a report written in December 1952, which contained data from Franklin and Wilkins and had been given to Max Perutz, the head of the Cambridge research group.After the article had been edited and was at the proof stage, we made two more discoveries:

– We found a letter from a PhD student at King’s to Crick which suggests that Franklin knew that Perutz had the relevant information and that she almost invited Crick to ask Perutz about it. This letter is very different from the competitive race that Watson portrays the discovery as. It also fits in with Franklin’s later friendship and collaboration with both Watson and Crick. We have found no evidence she felt robbed (nor was she).

– We noticed that at the Royal Society Conversazione (a kind of science fair) held in June 1953, Franklin presented the double helix as a collective work – exactly as the draft Time article suggested – with all seven authors of the Nature papers given credit.

We had to add these findings, which reinforced our argument, as best we could. Had we stumbled upon these facts earlier the article might have been a bit different, but there was only so much rewriting we could do.

We did not set out to discover anything new about an affair we thought was done and dusted, nor were we looking to exculpate Watson and Crick (nor have we done so). It has been quite a ride, but I for one will be glad to move on from 1953!

Thanks to Matthew for that. He also wrote a 23-part Twitter thread, beginning here, summarizing their views and giving lots of cool pictures. Here’s the first tweet, and just follow it down:


A few photos. First, the infamous “photo 51”, taken by Raymond Gosling under Frankin’s supervision:

Here’s the cover of the report given to Perutz that served as a prime impetus for Watson and Crick’s construction of the DNA model:

Crick’s acknowledgment (in his lecture notes) of the importance of the MRC report in giving the dimensions of DNA (my box). Caption is Matthew’s. Note Crick’s sentence (I’ve put it in a red box), “MRC mimeographed report gave unit cell dimensions. A, B forms.”  These were crucial for the model.

A letter implying that Franklin knew that Watson and Crick would see the King’s data, and wasn’t worried about it (Caption by Matthew):

We found a 1953 letter to Crick from a student at King’s, implying that Franklin knew her MRC report data would be shared with Watson and Crick, and was relaxed about this. We found no evidence that she felt robbed—and this letter suggests that she did not feel this way.

Crick lauds Franklin when he was n0minated for the Nobel (and she was dead). Caption is from Matthew:

Franklin was a brilliant scientist. Her work was an essential part of the discovery of the double helix. She did not discover the structure, but did come very close. As Crick explained when he was nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Below: Rosalind Franklin’s gravestone (she was Jewish). Note that it mentions her work on viruses but not on DNA. The grave is at “The Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery, usually known as Willesden Jewish Cemetery. . .  at Beaconsfield Road, Willesden, in the London Borough of Brent, England.” Note the stones placed on the marker, a sign of respect in Jewish culture.

Finally, Matthew produced an AI-generated photo (using the My Heritage website). of Franklin showing how she might have looked and moved in real life.

19 thoughts on “Cobb and Comfort on Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to solving the structure of DNA

  1. It is entirely possible that had Rosalind Franklin lived a normal lifespan then she might well have won two Nobels: one for her DNA work and the second for her work on the structure of viruses. This isn’t idle speculation: her PhD student, Aaron Klug, won his for precisely that.

  2. Many thanks to PCC(e) for this issue of WEIT (and of course to Matthew Cobb) for correcting the record. Unfortunately, pop culture has already absorbed the legend that Jim Watson got his Nobel Prize by stealing Rosalind Franklin’s photo 51, which was of course a picture of the DNA from aliens in Area 51.

    There is another aspect of Watson’s history that is little known. Like Richard Lewontin, he followed the eccentric custom of never putting his name on work published by his PhD students. He was also very highly regarded as a PhD mentor, and his graduates include some major researchers in molecular biology, such as Mario Capecchi, Bob Horvitz, Peter Moore, Joan Steitz, and Chuck Kurland, among others..

  3. This is a great post. It evokes memories of reading Horace Freeland Judson’s “The Eighth Day of Creation” as an undergraduate. Twice.

  4. A wonderful discovery, and it’s kind of incredible to think of how far we’ve come in those 70 years.

    I just wrote up a blog post on this, but given Franklin’s heritage, I think she’d be pleased to know that analogies to the structure of DNA, the nature of codons, the nature of the 4 bases, the processes of transcription and translation, RNA splicing, selection, mutation, error correcting, cell cycle checkpoints, cell division, whole genes, crossing over / recombination, and alleles… can all be made in the story of Jacob and his time with Laban in PadanAram.

    I hope most open-minded biologists would find that intriguing as well.

    1. Franklin was an atheist, as I am, and your analogies to religion are simply bizarre. I see your website has proofs of God on it, so it’s clear you’re using this comment to push religion. Bye!

  5. Fascinating, really fascinating.

    One question for Matthew (if he’s reading) or anybody else who wants to answer:

    Is it worth reading Watson’s Double Helix if it is indeed “semi fictional”? I have it in my to read list, but from a few quotes here and there it sounds like it’s about as fanciful as Spare by Prince Harry.

  6. I interviewed Crick (by phone) in 1990 or 1991 for my book “Everyday Wonders.” FWIW, here’s part of our conversation:

    BE Let’s talk about DNA and the way you hit on the double helix arrangement. Was there a day when you and Dr. Watson knew you had solved the structure, even though you didn’t have the details yet?
    FC Yes, when he discovered the base pairs, although we still weren’t sure it would work out.
    BE You hadn’t built the model at that time, right?
    FC What people don’t realize is that the model in the picture you sometimes see, with me looking a bit silly and holding a slide rule, wasn’t built until well after the paper was published. We built the model for an open day. Before that, we actually worked on a model that consisted of only a half a base pair, because that’s all you need to do the crystallography. So we did build a model, but it wasn’t the model most people have in mind.
    BE So there was one moment when you knew you’d discovered the structure?
    FC Watson found the base pairs before I came in one morning. He was playing with cardboard cut-outs of the bases when he happened to form those two pairs. Then when I came in, he showed them to me and I pointed out that they had the right symmetry, that is, if you flipped them over, the way they joined onto the chains was the same. I had previously deduced that they should have that symmetry, because of the fact that the atoms in the two chains run in opposite directions. So we had that bit of knowledge already.
    What we didn’t know was this: if we put the base pairs into the structure, was it possible to build that structure to fit the small amount of X-ray data we had, or at least make it look plausible. In fact, we didn’t know it would fit that data until we built the model, which took us a day or so. So sometime in that period, there was a definite moment, when we thought “My gosh, it’s going to come out.” Even after that, Jim wasn’t sure that it was right. He was worried that we didn’t have the structure and we’d make fools of ourselves.
    BE You mentioned in your book that he was rather cautious.
    FC Strictly speaking, we didn’t know for about 20 years if it was completely right! It just became more and more plausible. The experimental work then was done on fibers, which are always subject to uncertainties of interpretation.

  7. Fascinating. I am pleased to read that the old story about ruthless competition is largely false, and that—as with so many scientific discoveries—cooperation was a key to success. This is one of the beauties of science. While there is certainly competition and ambition, the major focus is on the substance: discovering something that was heretofore unknown. The pursuit of the unknown is motivation enough.

  8. Professor Cobb was on the ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 at about 0845 this morning talking about his article. Fascinating stuff; and it’s great to have such quick access to the article itself.

    I believe Watson is still alive, at the age of 95. If he still has his marbles, it would be interesting to know his reaction to the article.

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