April 30, 2003
The Mother of DNA
In March 1953, Maurice Wilkins of King's College London announced the departure of his colleague Rosalind Franklin in a private letter to his friend, Francis Crick, a scientist at the rival Cavendish Laboratory.
"Our dark lady is leaving us next week," Wilkins wrote.
At the time, Crick and James Watson had already completed a model of the structure of a DNA molecule -- a double-helix -- using data from Franklin's research that Wilkins had provided without her knowledge. Watson and Crick published their model the following month in the journal Nature.
The groundbreaking discovery -- which helped explain how genes replicate -- earned Watson, Crick and Wilkins the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Franklin had died of ovarian cancer four years earlier, at age 37, never knowing the direct role she played in one of the most influential scientific discoveries of all time.
Now, with celebrations under way across the globe to mark the 50th anniversary of the double helix, Franklin is getting some posthumous fanfare.
In fact, few people would have recognized Franklin's contribution had it not been for Watson. His best-selling 1968 memoir, "The Double Helix," is studded with unflattering descriptions of Franklin -- a molecular biologist and crystallographer who was the rare woman -- and certainly the rare Jewish woman -- in her field.
"What the revolutionary side of me would like to propose is calling it the Watson-Crick-Franklin model," said Lynne Osman Elkin, a professor of Biological Sciences at California State University, Hayward.
Elkin appears -- along with Wilkins and several of Franklin's illustrious former collaborators -- in "Secret of Photo 51," which aired April 22 on the PBS science program "NOVA."
The documentary by Gary Glassman is loosely based on Brenda Maddox's biography, "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA" (Harper Collins, 2002). For Maddox, Franklin's Jewish heritage was one of the most significant factors in her professional and personal development.
"I agree that faith is essential to success in life," Franklin wrote as a Cambridge undergraduate. "In my view all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims [the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future] is worth attaining."