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