So, last month, the New York Times ran a story about new historical evidence in the discovery of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which we now now encodes the patterns of almost all life (I’m looking at you, fire). But don’t go looking there. The real article was in Nature by Cobb and Comfort. They have some new evidence, which suggests Franklin “… was no victim …[but] an equal contributor.”
Nature has a bias toward UK science, so it’s not surprising they would be disposed to burnish this black mark in science history. Never-the-less, the details of the process of discovery as Cobb and Comfort outline them are always fun to read. But, of course, there can be many stories through the same facts, and I think I read this story differently than the authors. So, here’s my take.
First, in research studies, there is often a time-point at which the search for understanding gives way from thrashing to the shape of the final solution. The exact point of the transition is fuzzy, but before this transition, we are grasping at straws, and after, the solution is inevitable. Atleast, this is the way it seems to happen in mathematics.
But science is messier. Many times in history, the shape of the solution has been knowable long before the last of the pieces have been put in place. It seems “everybody” was considering helical solutions to the shape of DNA, long before “big reveal” in April of 1953. Franklin had already expressed optimism about a helical structure in a November 1951 seminar, while Crick had co-authored a paper calculating the diffraction patterns of helicies by Fourier transforms in 1952. But establishing such a hypothesis took data – data that it seems was largely provided by Franklin, with other supporting contributions by Wilkins and other researchers.
There were several cases of questionable data transfer from Franklin to Watson and Crick. Cobb and Comfort say Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix through “… six weeks of what they later described as “trial and error” …" with models. I say that at that point, the discovery was inevitable, and who made it was a matter of sociality, money, and politics rather than science. Franklin was doing the hard work, and with that ball rolling, the structure was sure to be revealed. Without her work, it’s unclear and maybe unlikely the same discoveries could have happened in the same places. Crick made important contributions on the theoretical side, but wasn’t allone in those, atleast based on authorship.
For what it’s worth then, it seems to me that Franklin was not an “equal contributor”, but rather, the focal contributor to the discovery of the shape of DNA. Her systematic erasure from the history must forever be a reminder of the efforts needed to keep science a public commons. In science communication, we need to fight the tropes of “Eureka!” discoveries, and the setting apart of genius from ordinary life. It’s something we all can and should do, even in just the little moments of our life, like figuring out why the refigerator smells ;)
The race for the double Helix NOVA, S03E08 1976, featuring both Watson and Crick, long before their bad behavior was called out.
Secret of Photo 51, NOVA, S30E09 2003, is a take on Rosaline Franklin’s contribution. I think it’s a little out-of-date relative to some of the more recent scholarship, but is still a good watch.
Rosalind Franklin : The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, 2003. ISBN:9780060985080
What Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure by Comfort and Cobb, 2023-05-05
Correction: Rosalind Franklin’s crucial contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure was a followup to another botched DNA story (cause the history of science is HARD! Joe Palca wouldn’t have got that one wrong. ) 2023-05-05