Google doodle honors Rosalind Franklin

Had she lived, Rosalind Franklin would have been 93 today. Born in 1920, she died at only 37 of ovarian cancer. And, as we all know, she was an unsung—but now recognized—hero of modern genetics, for her work on X-ray crystallography was pivotal in elucidating the structure of DNA.

She’s recognized today with the ultimate accolade of social media: a Google doodle. 

As CNET describes, Franklin is pictured gazing at the famous “photo 51,” whose “x” pattern was a crucial clue in showing that DNA was a double helix.

Screen shot 2013-07-25 at 5.21.06 AM

From Wikipedia:

As vividly described in The Double Helix, on 30 January 1953, Watson travelled to King’s carrying a preprint of Linus Pauling’s incorrect proposal for DNA structure. Since Wilkins was not in his office, Watson went to Franklin’s lab with his urgent message that they should all collaborate before Pauling discovered his error. The unimpressed Franklin became angry when Watson suggested she did not know how to interpret her own data. Watson hastily retreated, backing into Wilkins who had been attracted by the commotion. Wilkins commiserated with his harried friend and then changed the course of DNA history with the following disclosure. Without Franklin’s permission or knowledge, Wilkins showed Watson Franklin’s famous photograph 51. Watson, in turn, showed Wilkins a prepublication manuscript by Pauling and Corey. Franklin and Gosling’s photo 51 gave the Cambridge pair critical insights into the DNA structure, whereas Pauling and Corey’s paper described a molecule remarkably like their first incorrect model.


h/t: Steve


  1. Dominic
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    The Kings College exhibition that features ‘The’ photo has a couple more days to run.

  2. Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    An interactive site describes how one infers molecular structure from the crystallographic image.

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      That helps, but it would have been nicer had it shown exactly how the diffraction patterns were generated — similar to a textbook cutaway diagram of the eye showing the tree getting flipped upside down on the retina.


      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Ach du lieber Catt!

        Ich habe das hier gefunden Roentgenstrahlinterferenzen!

        Makkenzee headenzee spinninzee furschlaftenflugenzoft.

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        I actually got there from this link:

        No wonder I never got further than NMR and regular light-based spectroscopy.

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

        What kills me about this stuff, looking for the first time at the mechanics of it, is the sheer amount of hand (slide rule) calculations and trig table lookups that it must have involved.

        Nowdays I image the toughest part has got to be getting a really clean sample, and in crystalline form (or nearly so). Seems like once you get the imaging done, the computers get to take over with their Fourier transforms and whatnot. But what do I know? I guess it’s another reason why the pace of discovery has taken off like it has.

        • Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the links…now I just have to find a computer with Java…

          And, yes. Absolutely. Computing has radically changed virtually all of science. Just think of all the data the LHC has to sift through. But I also imagine it must be such these days that a computer can make sense of a jumble of bad X-ray images, if you just throw enough images at it. Or, alternately, it should be able to make sense of proteins that by their nature are hopelessly messy and complex.


        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          Seems like once you get the imaging done, the computers get to take over with their Fourier transforms and whatnot.

          “The phase problem.”

  3. Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink


    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

      I mean… 


  4. gbjames
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink


  5. Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    The best account of the incident is still Horace Judson’s Eight Day of Creation, especially page 141. Watson and Crick got the detailed information on the famous photo from a report that Franklin and Wilkins had published three months earlier. The same information was provided in a seminar Franklin gave the previous year. There was nothing secret about the photo or the data, it’s just that Watson hadn’t been personally aware of it.

    The expanded version of Judson’s book, published in 1996, contains an appendix where he discusses “The myth of the wronged heroine.” It’s a must-read for anyone interested in this incident.

    If she had lived, Rosalind Franklin would probably have shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Wilkins while Watson & Crick would have gotten the prize in Physiology & Medicine. There’s no doubt about the fact that she made an important contribution to the final result and that’s why her paper appears with Watson & Crick’s in Nature. (Wilkins also has a paper in the same issue.)

    There’s also no doubt in anyone’s mind that Franklin would never have solved the structure on her own.

    • Nilou Ataie
      Posted July 26, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

      Didn’t she solve the A form structure of DNA? What is it about the B form that leaves no doubt that she would have failed, please provide details.

  6. poxyhowzes
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    As between Wikipedia and Professor Moran, I’m not going to waste time on asserting rightness or wrongness, but I think questions about Franklin’s contribution remain.

    In any case, I think the question of whether Franklin’s work and Franklin herself were slighted before her death (when she could no longer win a Nobel, for example) is of much less concern in 2014 than the question of whether Franklin and her work IS NOW recognized and credited.

    I think that the google doodle today is but one non-scientific indication that she and her work are now recognized.

    But, I find Larry Moran’s final sentence – paragraph to be nasty and gratuitous, IMHO. No one, least of all JAC or commenters here, even suggest that Franklin was working “on her own” on the structure of DNA.


    • gbjames
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      Would Watson or Crick, on his own, have? How could we ever know? Is that question even meaningful?

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

      “no doubt” and “never” are very strong terms. Where’s the intellectual humility? 😉


    • Marta
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      I would not go as far as nasty, but it’s definitely unnecessarily contentious.

  7. Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I think it’s a great day to begin reading “The Dark Lady of DNA,” which I’m ashamed to say has been sitting on my bookshelf untouched for months.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the reminder Cathy!

  8. Posted July 25, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I was curious about the sign in background in that photo. I found a larger version here, but the resolution still isn’t good enough to read it. It’s in French, and appears to be some kind of rules of conduct — the lower half says “No — on the tables”. There’s another sign on a door, cropped out of Jerry’s image, that says “Absolutely no smoking in the dormitory”. I wondered if that might be an ashtray on the table in front of Rosalind, but I think is actually an assortment of sewing supplies.

  9. Dawn Oz
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this Jerry – one of my passions, is the disservice done to Franklin by two greedy males – there was enough fame to go around – and I can’t imagine taking someone else’s work.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:58 am | Permalink

      And if Linus Pauling had got there first…?

      ‘Taking someone else’s work’ is a bit simplistic. It could be argued that Rosie Franklin took Wilkins’ work – along with the ‘good’ DNA that he got from Rudolf Signer, without which she would probably not have got such clear photos. (Which is not to say that Wilkins would have done as well, photographically, or that the awkward situation was entirely of Rosie’s making).

  10. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:42 am | Permalink


    fills in some fascinating background details of the DNA story from Raymond Gosling’s viewpoint. (He was, as you may recall, first Maurice Wilkins’ then Rosie Franklin’s assistant).

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted July 27, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this article, very helpful.

  11. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    If I understand the doodle corectly, Franklin was able to shoot a beam of X-rays out of her eyes, which then diffract off the double helix to form a diffraction pattern. X-man candidate?

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