One of the great “behind the scenes” histories / stories / arguments / legends of 20th century science is back in the news again this week, with the publication in Nature of an article about the re-discovery of a large quantity of Francis Crick’s correspondence, including letters he exchanged with Maurice Wilkins during the period of the solving of the structure of DNA in 1951-53. Crick’s letters had long been thought lost, but turned up in the papers of Sydney Brenner, with whom Crick shared an office for many years in Cambridge.
The Guardian’s Ian Sample also covered the story, in a piece headlined, a touch melodramatically in my view:
Letters shed light on bitter rivalries behind discovery of DNA double helix
This is, of course, a reference to two things: firstly the personality clashes between Rosalind Franklin and Wilkins, Crick and Jim Watson, which have been hashed over many times in print; and secondly, the professional rivalry between King’s (where Franklin and Wilkins worked) and the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge (Watson and Crick).
The Nature article, by Alexander Gann & Jan Witkowski, is titled simply:
The lost correspondence of Francis Crick
– with the perceptive subheading “Strained relationships and vivid personalities leap off the pages”.
“Strained relationships” is certainly accurate, from every account of the events that has come down to us. However, the events have now been almost overwhelmed by the later “interpretations”.
In particular, every time the story of the discovery of DNA is referred to in print beyond the scientific literature, it is almost guaranteed that two arguments will make an appearance in comments or commentaries. One, and by far the most common, can be stated crudely as “Rosalind Franklin was done out of the credit” – usually with the corollary “…because she was a woman”. The other, a bit less common, is that Erwin Chargaff was done out of the credit. Sometimes this one is also coupled with the implication that Chargaff, an Austrian Jew by birth, was excluded for being an “outsider”.
These two viewpoints, but especially the one relating to Franklin, have become so entrenched in some quarters that even some scientists seem to think they are the definitive truth. For instance, I saw one scientist opine on Twitter that the newly-rediscovered letters were “more damning than ever on Franklin’s exclusion”. And one or two of the comments under the Guardian article were so silly that I felt moved to write, and post, the following comment:
“My father shared a lab for a couple of years with Rosalind Franklin’s assistant Raymond Gosling, and knew many of the protagonists in the story, some fairly well. From what I have read, and what he has told me, these letters don’t seem to reveal anything we didn’t already know – though of course it is interesting to see the contemporaneous thoughts of those involved, rather than their reminiscences filtered through years of hindsight.
Most people would agree that both Franklin and Chargaff did not quite get the credit they deserved, certainly in the early accounts of the discovery. But the views of Franklin as a wronged heroine and victim of the boys’ club, or of Chargaff as systematically disregarded because of his race and/or nationality, seem to me to owe far more to the “political” narratives projected onto the story by later authors, many with obvious agendas.
I have never met any scientist with direct memories of the era, of heard of one, who did NOT think that Crick, Watson and Wilkins were fully deserving winners of the DNA structure Nobel. Omitting Franklin, had she been alive at the time of the award, would have been an injustice, though (hypothetically) likely a direct consequence of the Nobel “no more than three winners” policy. However, that is not what actually happened. The problem of whether to include Franklin was sadly resolved by her tragically early death; however, her key role in the discovery, and her place in the scientific pantheon, is secure.”
The dispute over credit for the discovery of the structure of DNA re-appears in the national press periodically. Prior to the discovery of Crick’s letters, the last time was probably on his death in 2004 (closely followed by the death of Maurice Wilkins).
Which reminds me that in writing the comment at the Guardian, I was, in a way, following a family tradition.
When news of Crick’s death broke in early August 2004, the Times Higher Education published a series of comments from eminent scientists, and from those who had know Crick. You can read them here.
Among them was the following comment from then chief executive of the Institute of Physics, Julia King:
“I was disappointed that, in much of the coverage of Francis Crick’s death, the references were to Crick and Watson’s great discovery – there was no mention of Rosalind Franklin.”
This moved my father to pen the following letter, which appeared in the THE on 20th August 2004:
“The response of Julia King to the death of Francis Crick is more than a little churlish (“Not many scientists can claim immortality”, August 6).
If King looks up the Watson-Crick paper in Nature (1953), she will find that it is followed in the journal by two papers from the workers at King’s College London, the first by Maurice Wilkins, Alec Stokes and Herbert Wilson and the second by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling.
These papers show the X-ray diffraction pictures on which the Cambridge DNA structure was based, and this debt was acknowledged by Watson and Crick in their paper.
I joined the King’s College laboratory a year later as a graduate student.
Gossip made it clear that had there been easier interactions among the King’s workers, a correct structure might have been first derived in London, but all agreed that, as things turned out, the honour was due to Cambridge. These seem to be the facts, whatever mythology may have developed.
The responses of Hugh Huxley and Nigel Unwin better describe the Francis Crick whom I admired and respected. Your headline sums it up: indeed, he is immortal.”
I am pretty sure that we will see this all re-hashed again, with the same competing “narratives”, every time the DNA discovery story re-appears in the news. Such, I guess, is the fate of historical events which come to mean different things to different people.
In the meantime, though, and to get back to the re-discovered letters: while Francis Crick was, and is, a scientific immortal, he was also a human being. And that is the person his letters bring to life for us. Do go and read them, if you haven’t already.