DNA – letters, stories, and narratives 60 years on

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.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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12 Responses to DNA – letters, stories, and narratives 60 years on

  1. Mike Fowler says:

    Austin, thanks for posting this. I’ve heard all the rumours, but the background material had escaped me so far. Fascinating stuff.
    I’ll be off to read the letters as soon as studying my next run of simulation results has sucked the insipiration out of me.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Ooh, nice piece. You’ve already got 2 pieces in Scientia this week, so I’ll let it roll over to next week. You could submit to The Giant’s Shoulders as well.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

     This is great stuff Austin – so good to have an insider’s view, via your Dad (again!).
    I hadn’t heard the Chargaff accusation before but suspect there’s nothing to it. After all, Perutz — also an Austrian Jew — got the prize in the same year as Crick, Watson and Wilkins.
    Chargaff was certainly no admirer of Crick or Watson — felt they understood little about DNA. There is a great and very caustic quotation from him in a book I have by Fred Richards (Present at the Flood). Must dig it out. 

  4. Austin Elliott says:

    Thanks all.

    I suppose it is hearsay, since my dad arrived at King’s in Autumn 1954, but at least he heard the gossip "fresh" from immediate colleagues of the people involved. 

    Spot on about Chargaff not thinking much of Crick and Watson, Stephen. There is a famous (and quite funny) bit in Watson’s The Double Helix where he describes his and Crick’s meeting with Chargaff, who clearly thought they were a pair of complete amateur bumblers.

    The quotation you may be thinking of is that Watson quotes Chargaff later asking another of the Cambridge team in a letter (after the structure had been solved but before it was announced)

    "And how are my two favourite scientific clowns?" (meaning Crick and Watson).

    Chargaff’s Rules were certainly crucial clues to the base pairing, but so were other things, like American crystallographer Jerry Donohue telling Crick and Watson the correct molecular structures/forms for the bases, which had been determined by Linus Pauling’s team at CalTech. Donohue was a friend of Peter Pauling (Linus Pauling’s son, then working at the Cavendish), who was a friend of Crick’s. And so on and so on. There is an interesting Wiki page with some discussion of the primary, second order and third order "players". But no-one much seriously dispute that Crick-Watson-Franklin-Wilkins were the key ones.

    BTW, for any that haven’t read The Double Helix, it is a must-read, being still the most memorable "I was there" account I know of a key discovery

  5. Phil says:

    I wouldn’t blame Crick, but recently I have had a niggling suspicion that had Franklin been male, she would have taken more credit in the history and telling of the story of the discovery of DNA and its structure. I think that’s understandable given the way society has been and in some ways still is and it would be nice if people outside science knew her name as well as they might do Watson and Crick.

    An interesting post someone linked to that made me think about this differently:


  6. aDNAn says:


    You provide interesting historical details, but your father is dead wrong when he writes:

    “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.”

    Watson and Crick lied outright:

    “We were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we devised our structure.”

    That’s a lie. They had, in fact, seen Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray, the one published in one of those “followng communications”.

    Here’s another: “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 “.

    General nature, my foot.


    • I know it’s years later (!), but as I’ve just been talking about this on Facebook I’ll add a reply.

      I would surmise that when they wrote that, the point was that they didn’t know the DETAILS, as in the distances between the spots on the x-ray picture(s), which would give (via a lot of calculation in those pre-computer days) the pitch of the helix and lots of other precise structural parameters. This is exactly the kind of thing crystallographers would call ‘details’, and was also precisely the stuff that Franklin wanted to measure (and work out from the measurements on the photos, see above) before she would even consider building models – or as she called it, making guesses.

      Crick and Watson, on the other hand, really only needed to be SURE it was a helix – which photo 51 made utterly clear just from the X-pattern of the spots, thus ‘general features’. Then they stuck that together with all the other bits of info they had (like the base-pairing, which no-one else had got right, and the chemical insight that the phosphates must be on the outside of a two-strand structure and the bases on the inside)… and that was that.

      Of course, with the retrospective idea that Franklin was done down, one can see why people see the phrase about details as being ‘economical with the truth’. But this is all hindsight, really – as I said in the original post, people’s view of the business is always filtered through the perspective they bring to it going in – of which ‘Franklin the wronged proto-feminist heroine’ is the one with the most contemporary resonance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’, and so on.

  7. Luca says:

    I didn’t know about Nobel’s “no more than three winners” policy.
    So you think this would have precluded Franklin from sharing in the prize had she been alive in 1962? My impression has always been that – of the 4 scientists involved – Wilkins was the one with the lesser claim to the prize.
    This is a blog post wrote yesterday, expressing my opinion that only death stopped Franklin from receiving the prize: http://aspiringfreethinker.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/sixty-years-ago-on-this-day-dna.html

    • Again, a delayed reply.

      Wilkins initiated the DNA project in the Randall lab, and spent two years on it before Franklin arrived, including sourcing the DNA samples. He was also officially Ray Gosling’s co-supervisor, I think.

      The problems all really started with lab head JT Randall (also my dad’s ‘official’ PhD supervisor), who told Wilkins that Franklin was coming in to help him (Wilkins), and that Wilkins who would still be in charge of the DNA project. Meanwhile, Randall told Franklin – who had barely heard of DNA before arriving in the King’s lab, and had never worked on it – that she was going to be doing the DNA project on her own. Add to that that the two of them never really got on, and the recipe for what followed was established. But who is to say, really, that Wilkins had a weaker claim? Without him, there would have been no DNA project at King’s for Franklin to come and work on. And after Franklin left to go to Birkbeck, Wilkins took up the DNA project again, finishing all the work and going on to do lots more.

      The idea that Franklin had the stronger claim rests almost entirely on the idea that she was solely responsible for the DNA x-ray photos, and that the photos were the only thing that mattered – but neither thing is true, especially the latter. Hence what I said above – that had Franklin been excluded from the Nobel, it would have been an injustice, but that excluding Wilkins would have been too.

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