NEW YORK (AP) — The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA 70 years ago has opened up a world of new science — and it’s also sparked controversy about who contributed what and who deserves credit.
Much of the controversy stems from a central idea: that James Watson and Francis Crick – the first to understand the shape of DNA – stole data from another female scientist named Rosalind Franklin.
Now, two historians suggest that while parts of that story are accurate — Watson and Crick relied on the research of Franklin and his lab without their permission — Franklin was more of a collaborator than a mere victim.
In an opinion piece published Tuesday in the journal Nature, historians say the two different research groups were working in parallel to solve the DNA puzzle and knew more about what the other group was up to than previously believed.
“It’s a lot less dramatic,” said the paper’s author Matthew Cobb, a zoologist at the University of Manchester who is working on a biography of Crick. “It’s not a heist movie.”
The story dates back to the 1950s, when scientists were still studying how the pieces of DNA fit together.
Watson and Crick were working on modeling the shape of DNA at Cambridge University. Meanwhile, Franklin, an X-ray imaging expert, was studying molecules at King’s College London, alongside a scientist named Maurice Wilkins.
It was there that Franklin captured the iconic Photograph 51, an X-ray image showing the cross shape of DNA.
Then, the story gets complicated. In the version that is often told, Watson was able to look at Photograph 51 during a visit to Franklin’s laboratory. According to the story Franklin hadn’t solved the structure, even months after making the picture. But when Watson saw it, “all of a sudden, he knew immediately that it was a helix,” said lead author Nathaniel Comfort, a medical historian at Johns Hopkins University who is writing a biography of Watson.
Around the same time, the story goes, Crick also obtained a lab report that included Franklin’s data and used it without Franklin’s consent.
And according to this story, these two “eureka moments” — both based on Franklin’s work — Watson and Crick “were able to go and solve the double helix within days,” Comfort said.
This “tradition” came in part from Watson himself in his book “The Double Helix,” historians say. But historians suggest this was a “literary device” to make the story more exciting and understandable to lay readers.
After digging through Franklin’s archives, historians have found new details that they say challenge this simplistic narrative and suggest that Franklin contributed more than just one photograph along the way.
Proof? A draft Time magazine story of the time written “in consultation with Franklin,” but never published, described the work on the structure of DNA as a joint effort between the two groups. And a letter from one of Franklin’s colleagues suggested Franklin knew his research had been shared with Crick, the authors said.
Taken together, this material suggests that the four researchers were equal collaborators in the work, Comfort said. While there may have been some tensions, the scientists were sharing their findings more openly, not stealing them in secret.
‘She deserves to be remembered not as the victim of the double helix, but as an equal contributor to the structure solution,’ conclude the authors.
Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said he wasn’t convinced by the updated story.
Markel – who has written a book on the discovery of the double helix – believes Franklin was “ripped off” by the others and cut out in part because she was a Jewish woman in a male-dominated field.
Eventually, Franklin quit his DNA job and went on to make other major breakthroughs in virus research, before dying of cancer at the age of 37. Four years later, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. structure.
Franklin was not included in that honor. Posthumous Nobel laureates have always been extremely rare and are now not allowed.
Exactly what happened, and in what order, will probably never be known for sure. Crick and Wilkins both died in 2004. Watson, 95, could not be reached and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he was director, declined to comment on the document.
But researchers agree that Franklin’s work was instrumental in helping unravel the double-helix shape of DNA, regardless of how history unfolded.
“How should it be remembered? As a great scientist who contributed equally to the process,” Markel said. “It should be called the Watson-Crick-Franklin model.”
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