Watson, Crick, Franklin, and that other guy

If I asked you to name the first person that comes to mind when I say, “discovered DNA,” you would say either Watson or Crick. And you would be wrong. DNA was actually discovered by Swiss physiological chemist Friedrich Miescher in 1869. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was not awarded to Watson and Crick until 1962 (which they also shared with Maurice Wilkins). Woah, pause. That was a lot of information.

  • 1869- Miescher discovers a new substance
  • 1951- Franklin begins working on x-ray data Wilkins has already started
  • 1953- Watson and Crick publish the structure of DNA; Wilkins and Franklin publish x-ray crystallography images in the same journal issue
  • 1962- Nobel Prize awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins


So why didn’t Franklin get any credit? It is tempting to say “well she was a woman in the 1950s,” but that would also be incorrect. The real reason was that Franklin died at age 37 from ovarian cancer in 1958 and you cannot receive a Nobel Prize after your death. The question remains, how much was Franklin’s work respected during her life? I’m going to go out on a limb and say not very much. This idea supported in part by the knowledge that in The Double Helix, Franklin is not portrayed in a positive light.

Franklin left her position with Wilkins shortly after the structure of DNA was published and continued to work on discovering the structure of tobacco mosaic virus until her death (which she was actually quite good at as well).

Why her?

  • I have been fascinated in the story of Rosalind Franklin ever since a biology teacher told me that everything I had learned about it only being Watson and Crick was wrong.
  • I was fascinated because she was a woman scientist, which I wanted to be.
  • I was fascinated because I wanted to know how credit can just get taken away, how history could effectively erase someone from our memory.
  • And the more I have learned, the more important I see it is to make sure your impact is known. Franklin is getting more credit now than she was when I first learned that she had a contribution in this ballgame, and that’s because enough people finally said, “hey guys, this is wrong.” (Only probably more eloquently since the majority of those people were scientists).
  • On top of that, Watson and Crick depended heavily on earlier discoveries, which is a common trend in science, and often necessary, but so frequently overlooked.
  • I have learned countless lessons from delving into her story and I am sure the more I explore, the more I will learn.

Published by She Got The PhD

A web-based soapbox of an Assistant Professor of color in Chemical Engineering; sharing my feelings on books, academia, and current events. I hope you enjoy reading :)

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