American biologist James Watson and English biologists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins are widely recognized for the revolutionary discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. But British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) played a critical but unsung role in the discovery. Using X-ray crystallography techniques, Franklin imaged the twisted molecule that contains life’s blueprint. She took the famous “Photo 51” that clearly showed DNA’s helical structure.
Franklin was working at King’s College London, in the United Kingdom, at the same time as Wilkins, and the two had a strained relationship. Meanwhile, Watson and Crick were developing a model of DNA, but lacked physical evidence for its structure. Wilkins took Franklin’s photo without her permission and showed it to Watson and Crick, who raced to publish their newly confirmed ideas.
Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, possibly due to radiation exposure from her X-ray crystallography work. A Nobel Prize, which can only be shared among three living scientists, was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins in 1962. Watson’s autobiographical account of the discovery, “The Double Helix,” barely recognized Franklin’s work, even portraying her as a “belligerent, emotional woman.”