Sexism in science: did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data?

tags: genetics, DNA, Rosalind Franklin

Matthew Cobb is professor of zoology at the University of Manchester. On Twitter he is @matthewcobb

Related Link Commentary by blogger, Why Evolution Is True 

The wave of protest that followed Sir Tim Hunt’s stupid comments about ‘girls’ in laboratories highlighted many examples of sexism in science. One claim was that during the race to uncover the structure of DNA, Jim Watson and Francis Crick either stole Rosalind Franklin’s data, or ‘forgot’ to credit her. Neither suggestion is true.

In April 1953, the scientific journal Nature published three back-to-back articles on the structure of DNA, the material our genes are made of. Together, they constituted one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. 

The first, purely theoretical, article was written by Watson and Crick from the University of Cambridge. Immediately following this article were two data-rich papers by researchers from King’s College London: one by Maurice Wilkins and two colleagues, the other by Franklin and a PhD student, Ray Gosling.

The model the Cambridge duo put forward did not simply describe the DNA molecule as a double helix. It was extremely precise, based on complex measurements of the angles formed by different chemical bonds, underpinned by some extremely powerful mathematics and based on interpretations that Crick had recently developed as part of his PhD thesis. The historical whodunnit, and the claims of data theft, turn on the origin of those measurements. 

The four protagonists would make good characters in a novel – Watson was young, brash, and obsessed with finding the structure of DNA; Crick was brilliant with a magpie mind, and had struck up a friendship with Wilkins, who was shy and diffident. Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, had been recruited to King’s in late 1950. Wilkins expected she would work with him, but the head of the King’s group, John Randall, led her to believe she would be independent. ...

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