The 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded to James Watson, Frances Crick and Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material” — the discovery of DNA’s molecular structure. Fifty years later, the same question is still being asked, should Rosalind Franklin have received the Nobel Prize for her work?
What Was Rosalind Franklin’s Contribution Exactly?
Rosalind Franklin was a top crystallographer who took the x-ray pictures of DNA that elucidated its structure. Th famous Photograph 51 pictured below was of the B form of DNA, one of many crystallographs Franklin and her PhD student Raymond Gosling took of the crystallized DNA molecule. Franklin developed the technique for crystallizing (solidifying) the molecule so that these X-ray crystallographs could be taken. X-ray crystallography works by shining X-rays through a crystal. The atoms in the crystal cause the x-rays to diffract. By measuring the intensities and angles of these diffractions, the crystallographer can produce a three-dimensional model of the crystal.
Franklin was able to separately crystallize the A and B forms so that clear pictures of each form of DNA could be taken.
Franklin hand-calculated the Patterson diagrams to determine the helical pattern of DNA repeated every 34 angstroms with 10 subunits per 10, making each nucleotide unit occupy 3.4 angstroms.
Further, Franklin as the one who told Watson and Crick, and later corrected Linus Pauling’s model, that the phosphates must be on the outside backbone of the molecule as they were hydrophilic (water-loving).
How Essential Were Rosalind Franklin’s X-Ray Photographs to the Discovery of DNA’s Structure?
James Watson admitted in his September 1999 address at the inauguration of the Center for Genomic Research at Harvard:
“Let’s just start with the Pauling thing. There’s a myth which is, you know, that Francis and I basically stole the structure from the people at King’s. I was shown Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray photograph and, Whooo! that was a helix, and a month later we had the structure, and Wilkins should never have shown me the thing. I didn’t go into the drawer and steal it, it was shown to me, and I was told the dimensions, a repeat of 34 Ängstroms, so, you know, I knew roughly what it meant and, uh, but it was that the Franklin photograph was the key event. It was, psychologically, it mobilised us . . .” (quoted from Maddox, Brenda. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA)
How Did Watson and Crick Obtain Rosalind Franklin’s Crystallographs?
Maurce Wilkins showed Franklin’s X-ray crystallographs to James Watson without Franklin’s knowledge or permission.
Why Didn’t Rosalind Franklin Win the Nobel Prize?
Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 due to ovarian cancer that was most likely caused by her frequent exposure to X-ray radiation. The Nobel Prize was awarded four years later, and cannot be awarded posthumously.
If Rosalind Franklin Had Been Alive, Would She Have Won the Nobel Prize?
Brenda Maddox compares this question to “What would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t gone to Dallas?” The fact is, Rosalind Franklin died, and Kennedy went to Dallas.
Eventually, one would hope, yes. But probably not in 1962 with Watson, Crick and Wilkins. The Nobel rules allow for no more than three recipients per category per year.
Maurice Wilkins, as a senior member of the Kings College lab in which Rosalind Franklin worked, would probably still have been awarded the prize in her stead. The Nobel Prize is awarded based on the recommendations of one’s colleagues, especially the recommendations of previous winners. Up until that point in 1962, only three women had won a Nobel prize in the sciences. Science was a men’s club, and its colleagues were men. In fact, two women at the same caliber of Rosalind Franklin had consistently been passed over — Lise Meitner for her discovery of nuclear fission and X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin. Dorothy Hodgkin eventually received the Nobel Prize in 1964. Lise Meitner never did.
Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion (Aaron Klug)”
Franklin’s collaborator at Birkbeck Aaron Klug spoke eloquently of her in his own Nobel Prize address:
“It was the late Rosalind Franklin who introduced me to the study of viruses and whom I was lucky to meet when I joined J.D. Bernal’s department in London in 1954. She had just switched from studying DNA to tobacco mosaic virus, X-ray studies of which had been begun by Bernal in 1936. It was Rosalind Franklin who set me the example of tackling large and difficult problems. Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion.” - 1982 Nobel Prize Address