Double Helix, Double Cross

Today the NYT features a glowing, heart-warming article about James Watson’s recently auctioned letter describing the discovery of DNA to his 12 year old son in 1953. As the NYT tells it, this is science at its most human.

To say something nice about the letter, it’s great that it’s being used to raise money for research, and it’s amazing to see what a good teacher Watson was – he describes the double-helix better than it is usually described by the professional educators who’ve had decades to turn it into high school and college fare. They should just reprint this from now on.

But to those who know the background, the real story here is just how darkly complex the human psyche can be – and how the New York Times can completely miss it.

To my reading, even before his Nobel Prize, even before the paper comes out, Watson is in full-swing mythologizing even in a letter to his own son. Because while mentioning Crick in his letter, he completely fails to mention Rosalind Franklin, the person on whose stolen work his theory rests, and who he was to go on to systematically excise from his history of his discovery for the remainder of his career.

Even more amazing, the NYT goes with the sweet-daddy angle, not the Freudian one. Here’s all that the Times article has to say about Franklin:

Crick wrote the letter to his son, if not in the very heat of discovery, at least the day after the problems of authorship had been resolved with the group at King’s College London, where Rosalind Franklin had generated critical X-ray data on DNA. “He could now — March 19 — relax and write to Michael,” said Robert Olby, Crick’s biographer.

(Amusing sidenote: the Times’ hyperlink is not to an explanation of x-ray crystallography, which is what Franklin was doing, but to a stub on medical x-rays. That’s like writing an article on nuclear bombs and linking to an article on microwave ovens. Whoops!)

What’s galling about this paragraph is the Times seems to be going along with the idea that “problems of authorships had been resolved” in an ethical way, and that readers should feel free to let their hearts warm.

Well, they hadn’t; they shouldn’t.

The “resolution” the Times refers to was achieved through anti-semitism and sexism and power dynamics that were baked into 1953 English academia. Franklin deserved far more credit than she received from Watson, and Watson’s letter to his son is, rather than a glimpse of the human spirit at its best, a window into how even brilliant minds may seek to cleanse themselves of the awareness that their accomplishments are collaborative. We stand not merely on the shoulders of giants, as Newton said, but average folks. To some people, this is galling. The Times misses this completely; let’s spell it out here.

The Nitty-Gritty

Here are some basic facts that are documented in the links at the bottom of this post, but are all generally accepted as true; what varies is their interpretation.

This scientist…

Rosalind Franklin

…Rosalind Franklin, was the Jewish woman chemist who took this x-ray diffraction picture of DNA (known to historians of this issue as Photograph 51)….

Rosalind Franklin DNA Picture

… which was shown by her colleague and co-author Gosling to a scientist named Wilkins, a colleague of Watson’s and a competitor of Franklin’s.

Wilkins brought it, without Franklin’s knowledge or permission, to Watson.  

Watson looked at it and  realized that DNA was helical, which led directly to his theory (as described so nicely in his letter to his son, as reprinted by the Times).  He then scrambled to write a theoretical paper that did not acknowledge the photograph directly [stop for a second: does this sound cool?] and called Nature, which skipped peer review and scrambled to put all the evidence together.

On April 25, 1953,  Nature published three papers, to which the Times refers obliquely. First Watson and Crick’s famous paper, followed by a second paper by Wilkins, the collaborator who had shown Photograph 51 to Watson, followed by a third paper by Franklin and Gosling,which described Photograph 51.

Watson did not cite Franklin’s paper in his article, or mention her name in his paper proper. He says only this in an end-note at the bottom, clearly excluding her from the scientific portion of the paper  (this is the actual clip from the original):

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 10.24.08 AM

Read that carefully. Watson was “stimulated” by a “knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas” of Franklin. By which he means “somebody stole Franklin’s picture, showed it to me without telling her, I realized what it meant, and wrote this paper without her.”

Then the popular press went nuts and published this picture

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 9.02.24 AM

Then Franklin died from cancer, and Watson got a Nobel prize and gave a Nobel Prize Lecture and a Nobel banquet speech in which he mentioned Franklin…..never. Not a once. Print out the .pdf and search for “Franklin.” Hell, read it. You will not find her in his description of his work.

And then we get today’s Times article. Happy story, right?

Was this fair?

Okay, just to get this out of the way, nobody seems seriously to think that Watson should be deprived any of his scientific glory. He saw Franklin’s picture and knew what it meant. Nobel Prize for You! And Franklin took the picture and did not know what it meant. So all on her own, probably no Nobel Prize for you — though of course, if she’d been able to work along at her own pace, or share her findings with Linus Pauling who was this close (pinchy fingers) to figuring out the structure, who knows.

But the key question here is whether Franklin deserve as little credit as the conventional wisdom – and the Times – give her. I suppose to be a devil’s advocate you could say science was played fast and loose back then, but that more or less things are as they should be. Watson and Crick get the glory and Franklin looks like a hard worker because of the old techne/episteme distinction that historically gives the blue collar scientists less fame than the white ones. It may not be nice, but it’s fair. Right? Sure, they may acknowledge, in a normal modern paper the data (photograph 51) would come first, the interpretation would come second, and it all would be presented in a single paper linking data to theory. And sure, back then in 1953 what Nature did was sketchy, splitting theory from data, putting the data in a back article, putting the theory up front, and not linking the two, including a photo-op that omitted the frumpy Jewess (see Watson’s unbelievable comments below) and letting the popular culture take care of the rest.

But what this spin on the story misses is what should be clear from the above.

Watson stole Franklin’s data, and then based his theory on her findings. 

Hello? Are we just rolling with that? Watson would not have produced his model if he had not seen data stolen from Franklin – or at least not as fast. Pauling might have. Franklin might have. We’ll never know. Regardless, isn’t this theft? And isn’t it totally lame of Nature to allow Watson to describe this theft as “stimulation by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas [of Rosalind Franklin].”

Isn’t that a bit like the inventor of Bratz dolls saying that he was “stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the Barbie doll“? When, in reality, he was working at Mattel when he invented them? (That really happened, btw. Eventually Bratz lost in court).

Why did this happen?  

So why did what would happen today – that Franklin would be a co-author on that lead paper, given that her data and theory led to it directly – not happen then?

Two words: Because England.

Entirely missing from the Times quote is any awareness of or sensitivity to the institutional environment Franklin and Watson, respectively, were working in – one of enormous privilege and celebration for Watson, one of glass ceilings everywhere for Franklin. Let alone that that vibe led to Franklin’s shafting – by Cambridge, by Nature, by the popular press – getting the official seal of approval.

Recall just how morally backwards 1953 England was – and not just towards Jewish women minorities. All of them! Why, just the year before it had taken its greatest scientific genius, Alan Turing, and criminally prosecuted  him for being gay, and had then chemically castrated him (read it and weep).

So now imagine what it was like for this Jewish woman, Franklin. She was an absolute second-class citizen, not allowed to eat with the men she was working with, and being thought of in terms far worse than the way Watson actually went ahead and said about her in The Double Helix (which you can pump into Google if you find yourself astounded that I believe that he actually wrote it):

She [Franklin] claimed that she had been given DNA for her own problem and would not think of herself as Maurice [Wilkins]’s assistant. I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy [Franklin] would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities.Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English bluestocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained – she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family. Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her beligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to thing unhindered about DNA. Not that he didn’t see some reason for her complaints – King’s had two combination rooms, one for men and the other for women, certainly a thing of the past. But he was not responsible, and it was no pleasure to bear the cross for the added barb that the women’s combination room maintained dingily pokey whereas money had been spent to make life agreeable for him and his friends when they had their morning coffee.Unfortunately, Maurice could not see any way to give Rosy the boot. To start with, she had been given to think that she had a position for several years. Also there was no denying she had a good brain. If she could only keep her emotions under control, there would be a good chance that she could really help him. But merely wishing for relations to improve was taking something of a gamble, for Cal Tech’s fabulous genius  Linus Pauling was not subject to the confines of British fair play. Sooner or later, Linus, who had just turned fifty, was bound to try for the most important of all scientific prizes….The real problem then was Rosy. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.

Are you beginning to get the vibe? Watson is annoyed because Franklin wouldn’t think of herself as Wilkins’ assistant. Um, maybe because she wasn’t? Maybe because she sensed a rat when she saw one? Maybe because she intuited he might steal her work and show it to Watson who would then base his theory on it and shut her out of the ensuing publicity and credit? Watson is annoyed that Franklin gets angry all the time. Um, maybe because she has something to be mad about? Anyone getting this?

Answer: maybe. But not the New York Times.

Today’s sweet little piece is part of a long tradition of acting as though Watson’s accomplishment was not built on the back of a Jewish woman he treated badly, thought poorly of, and sought to marginalize in his myth-making endeavors. If you didn’t know the background story, the piece in the Times today would seem to be a sweet little letter from a father to his son. But once you know, it becomes a window into the way in which prejudice and power long outlive the era in which they reign, with history, as always, being written by the victors.

 tl;dr: give Watson whatever credit you like; Rosalind Franklin should not be systematically omitted from discussions of the structure of DNA.

Additional sources:

1. Chemistry Heritage Foundation here (in which the authors imply that Franklin would have gotten famous had she not died, and ended friends with Crick, and was fine with everything that happened

2. A reasonable piece by NPR.


4. Wikipedia on Photograph 51

5. Wikipedia on Franklin

6. England’s unspeakable treatment of Alan Turing, in 1952; the Turing memorial

7. George Orwell essay on Anti-semitism in England

8. Watson’s biographer on his megalomania


  1. Please fix this post; Watson was Watson and Crick was Crick; surely you can highlight the absence of Franklin in Crick’s own Nobel Lecture. Wilkins’ does mention Franklin, though.

  2. Didn’t Pauling publish the alpha helical structure for proteins a half-year before Watson saw photo 51? Didn’t Wilkins show Rosalind’s picture to lots of people in symposia? And isn’t it true that Wilkins (and Franklin) didn’t want to work with Watson? And that they thought building models was rubbish? And isn’t there evidence that Franklin steadfastly refused to work with Watson and Crick? OR believe that the structure could actually BE helical? “Watson looked at it and realized DNA was helical” makes it sound like that was his first clue, not an ongoing and compelling path. Anyway this remains one of the great debates of science, and it should continue to be. But “Double Cross” still seems a little presumptuous. Some of these points may be debatable, or my recollection outright wrong, admittedly. But maybe “Double Helix, Sour Grapes” would be better?

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