The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ugly truth behind the discovery of DNA

The long-told story behind a critical discovery has erased the crucial role of a pioneering woman.

A lab assistant uses a pipette to prepare coronavirus RNA for sequencing at the Wellcome Sanger Institute that is operated by Genome Research in Cambridge, England. (Frank Augstein/AP)

With mRNA vaccines working to save the world from covid-19, it is easy to forget that these wondrous elixirs all began with the discovery of DNA’s double helical structure. The history behind this “light switch moment” — a singular discovery that changed everything about how we understand heredity — bears witness to an ugly truth: That science itself has long been socially constructed in a way that has systemically erased the contributions of women.

In the case of DNA, the light switch moment allegedly occurred Feb. 28, 1953. Shortly after the noon bells struck, 25-year-old American geneticist James Watson and 35-year-old British physicist Francis Crick emerged from the famed Cavendish Laboratory for Physics at the University of Cambridge in England.

As described in Watson’s iconic, best-selling memoir, “The Double Helix,” the two young scientists “winged” their way to the Eagle Pub, a mere 100 steps from the Cavendish. The pub was packed that afternoon with academics tucking into steaming plates of bangers and mash, fish and chips and other pub grub, lubricated by pints of lukewarm brews, as they debated every aspect of the human condition.

The duo was there to create even more noise. They had just worked out the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA. “We have discovered the secret of life,” Crick bragged to the crowd, according to Watson’s memoir.

Sadly, so much of this history has long been shrouded by misogynist mythology, slick storytelling and outright fabrication. Decades later, for example, Watson admitted that the Eagle Pub episode in which Crick made his shining declaration never happened. More to the point, DNA’s structure was not fully their discovery.

In fact, there were five brilliant minds hard at work on DNA at the same time: Watson and Crick in Cambridge, who were really supposed to work on the structure of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Rosalind Franklin, a physical chemist and X-ray crystallographer, and physicist Maurice Wilkins were working at King’s College London, which had the financial resources and institutional mandate to find DNA’s structure. And there was Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Pauling was the best quantum chemist in the world but was stymied by poor DNA X-ray data and beset by travel issues; the State Department tried to withhold his passport with McCarthy-esque belligerence, as punishment for his ultraliberal politics.

At Kings College, the rivalry between Wilkins and Franklin went far beyond mere competition. Their dislike of each other was legendary. For more than a year, they barely exchanged words. Wilkins and his boss, John Randall, wrote off Franklin as a “difficult woman” and eventually conspired to freeze her out of their lab. Years later, Watson described her as an angry “bluestocking,” an unimaginative shrew and the Jewish daughter of an “erudite banking family,” without noting that at the time Great Britain was a nation with only 450,000 Jews out of a population of 50,429,000.

Indeed, Franklin was one of the few Jewish women working in postwar British physical science. She was also a pioneer in the emerging fields of biophysics and molecular biology. Yet even as she stormed an ivory tower composed primarily of Christian White men, discrimination against Franklin’s gender and the omnipresent antisemitism in British academic circles all but doomed her chance for success.

No one could dispute her brilliance, however. For months, she painstakingly photographed and developed thousands of precise X-ray crystallography films of DNA — from every imaginable angle and focus. She shot tens of thousands of X-ray photos of each specimen, producing hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of data points. And to prove or disprove the molecule’s double helical nature, she spent months more, armed only with a slide rule and a ruler, doing the hard math in interpreting her often-contradictory X-ray diffraction results.

Then one day in late January 1953, Wilkins surreptitiously showed Franklin’s films to Watson, a direct competitor whom he knew to be “DNA-mad.” When Watson saw the picture labeled Photograph No. 51, his “pulse raced” and he instantly imagined the double helix of DNA. He took a train back to Cambridge that night, drew the Franklin photograph on the back of the Times of London and ran to the Cavendish the next morning to tell Crick and their bosses, Max Perutz, John Kendrew and Lawrence Bragg, about it. The rest, as they used to say, was history.

On April 25, 1953, Watson and Crick published their DNA paper in the premier British science journal Nature. It was only 842 words long. More striking, their structural model was pure speculation and not backed by a scintilla of hard data. Their paper was followed by a mind-numbing description of Wilkins’s meandering work. Appearing last in the special series of articles was Franklin’s data-dense paper, illustrated by Photograph No. 51 (the B form of DNA) and another X-ray crystallography picture of the A form. But for most readers, the placement of her paper in the cellar-slot appeared to only confirm the veracity (and primacy) of Watson and Crick’s model — a mind-blowing notion given that their model was based on her data.

Franklin, who had no idea how Watson and Crick beat her to the finish line, was by now working at the Birkbeck, University of London crystallography group. There, she happily (and productively) made critical discoveries on the structure of RNA viruses, including the microbe that causes polio. In 2018, Jenifer Glynn, Franklin’s younger sister, told me that if Franklin “was aware [of the data heist], there would have been a great row over it. I don’t doubt that. Her fury would have been understandable and alarming.”

To most 21st-century readers, it is difficult to discern what Wilkins, Watson and Crick were thinking when they committed — and later struggled to justify — their behavior. Such lapses are especially striking when one recalls that Franklin was working right down the hall. Why didn’t Wilkins shout out: “Rosalind, would it be all right if I showed your pictures to Jim?” Quite simply, it was not all right. There exists no ethical standard, then or now, whereby Franklin’s permission did not need to be expressly asked.

A few years ago, when I challenged him on this issue, Watson demurred that since Franklin was “only” a postdoctoral fellow, the King’s College biophysics lab had proprietary rights over all her DNA data. As such, she was required to turn it all over to Wilkins in anticipation of her exit to Birkbeck. Hence, Watson explained, Wilkins was perfectly entitled to show them to anyone he pleased.

Employing such glib excuses, Watson and Crick rode a DNA skyrocket all the way to Stockholm and the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. It was not until 1968, when Watson’s memoir was published, that the world was introduced to Franklin, whom he portrayed as a belligerent, narrow-minded hack who could not even understand her own data. Watson even went so far as to mock her as a recipient of “a rigid Cambridge education only to be so foolish as to misuse it.”

But, in reality, Watson and Crick — enabled by their bosses and, of course, Wilkins — may have engaged in one of the most egregious rip-offs in the history of science.

Once Watson and Crick figured out the two last crucial steps in defining the double helix — complementarity and base pairing — the story ceased to be about Franklin or her data. It was now about the beautiful mechanism by which genes make copies of the information they carry. The names Watson and Crick were etched into scientific history as deeply as Newton, Darwin, Mendel and Einstein.

If life was fair — and it is not — we would be calling it the Watson-Crick-Franklin model of DNA, instead of Watson and Crick. Franklin died at age 38, in 1958, of ovarian cancer that may have been a result of excessive radiation exposure.

Relying on hagiography and self-serving memoirs, the DNA tale has often been presented as a scientific whodunit, a story of brilliance and perseverance. But this moment of scientific triumph must also be seen as a saga of cronyism, gender discrimination, misogyny, antisemitism and gross misconduct. Today, the discovery of such chicanery would result in severe sanctions, if not outright dismissals, for Watson, Crick and Wilkins, rather than the 1962 Nobel Prize.