THE DISCOVERY OF THE DOUBLE HELIX
25 april 1953 the prestigious journal "Nature" published
one of its "letter contributions" (remarkably short
scientific papers) signed by James Watson and Francis Crick.
It was one of the most momentous papers of the modern era,
proposing a structure for the chemical, DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic
Acid), which composes the hereditary material of all living
cellular organisms. It proposed the - now well-known - double
Few remember that this paper was published without its authors
undertaking a single experiment. Instead, the experiments
underpinning their models were undertaken over the previous
three years in the Strand basement laboratories of the Medical
Research Council Biophysics Unit at King's. (This is not to
suggest that their models were not the result of significant
inspiration and insight, just that they were based on data,
that was being produced elsewhere in the UK).
The prime movers in obtaining the data at King's were Professor
Maurice Wilkins, who had commenced pilot studies on the use
of X-rays to analyse DNA structure, and Dr Rosalind Franklin,
a Fellow who arrived at King's in January 1951, and who advanced
the X-ray resolution of DNA structure to a new level of clarity
Their data were published alongside the Watson and Crick
paper but because neither provided a compelling model for
DNA structure, they have often been overlooked.
In 1962 Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick
but Franklin had tragically died a few years earlier at the
age of 37.
Today one often reads press stories that refer only to Watson
and Crick, and of Cambridge, and make no mention of King's.
The double helix rapidly became an icon of science, aesthetically
beautiful, and stunning in its capacity to explain how DNA
is replicated in order to transmit the genetic material to
the next generation.
Rosalind Franklin was responsible for much of the research
and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure
of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. The story of DNA is a tale
of competition and intrigue, told one way in James Watson's
book The Double Helix, and quite another in Anne Sayre's study,
Rosalind Franklin and DNA. James Watson, Francis Crick, and
Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix
model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin's death at
age 37 from ovarian cancer.