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An incomplete helix

Not a word about Rosalind Franklin was heard when in 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for Medicine thanks to the discovery of the structure of DNA. If the Nobel Committee did not include Franklin it was because the three musketeers of the double helix took care not to remember the fundamental contribution which this scientist’s research had made to the identification of the three-dimensional structure of nucleic acids consisting of molecular chains twisted into a double helix. Moreover she was unable to complain of their silence: Rosalind Franklin, a professional crystallographer, had died of a tumour at the age of 37, some time earlier, on 16 April 1958, perhaps because of the radiation to which her studies had for so long exposed her.

Born in 1920 to an English family of Jewish origin, Franklin studied at Cambridge. She began her career as a researcher in Paris, continuing it at King’s College, London. It was here that her photographs of DNA (which were seen unbeknown to her) struck Watson, who recognized them as a representation of the double helix. In fact in 1952, making use of a machine which she had modified, Franklin had obtained a photograph of DNA in its B form. It was this, together with an analysis of her correspondence and interviews with the minor protagonists of the event that ledmany to believe that Franklin herself was the true discoverer of the helicoidal morphology of DNA.

With time, however, almost in whispers, her contribution began to emerge. So it was that when, after winning the Nobel Prize, Watson wrote The Double Helix (a bestseller translated into 17 languages) he could not but mention her. But he did so minimizing her contribution as much as he possibly could, denigrating her both as a woman and as a scientist. Indeed in his book Franklin is presented as an irascible and untrustworthy female lunatic (“the girl was more bothersome than ever”) and disregarded (“she deliberately did nothing to underscore that she was a woman”).

Moreover, such misogyny caused a change of publisher: although at first Watson had been placed under contract by Harvard University Press, after a first draft had been circulated the publishing house subsequently cancelled his contract; this was not because there was any problem in the merit of the account but rather because of the offence which the text gave to many people, including the woman who was no longer able to defend herself. Despite the fact that Watson later eliminated or toned down some of the passages that had given rise to criticism, the book was nevertheless published by a commercial publisher.

From the 1950s to this day the career of DNA has been astounding: in only two generations it has moved from being in a niche domain to having a central place in daily language. It has become a source of inspiration for artists and journalists, a protagonist in films, novels and advertising. DNA is now the symbol of science that explains the world, a true icon of modernity. The history of its discovery, however, is also the umpteenth testimony of how the contribution of women is minimized: DNA and Watson are now known to all, whereas few people know the name of Rosalind Franklin or what she did. 

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 23, 2020