Franklin, Watson & Crick

The last issue here is one of scientific ethics.  The letter from Watson and Crick was followed on the same page of the journal by a letter from Rosalind Franklin and R. Gosling entitled "Molecular Structure of deoxypentose nucleic acids (1953. Nature 171: 738-740).

Based on her X-ray diffraction work, Franklin and Gosling concluded that DNA was helically organized.

In their paper, Watson and Crick state that "We were not aware of the details of the results presented there (i.e., in the Franklin and Gosling paper) when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments."

Based on this statement, one would be forgiven if one concluded that Watson and Crick had no knowledge of Franklin's unpublished data before they wrote their manuscript.


In truth, they were aware of it and it played an important role in the construction of their model.   Moreover, a critical piece of Franklin's data was revealed to Watson without her permission or knowledge.

Franklin could not share in the 1962 Nobel prize awarded to Watson and Crick because she had died of ovarian cancer in 1958. You have to be alive to win this prize.


There is little doubt that the significance of Franklin's data should have been acknowledged - the evidence is overwhelming that it played an important role in Watson and Crick's modeling process.

The numbers they used were derived from Franklin's data (Afterword I in "The Eight Day of Creation" by H. Judson).


"If I have seen further than most men, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants."
- Isaac Newton, 1676

Whether she was mistreated because she was a woman, or simply a more 'plodding' competitor is a more difficult issue.

The race to solve the structure of DNA was intense and the "prize" for winning it was large.


"You know, if you're going to make the next step in a major scientific thing, no one knows how to do it so you have to, in a sense, reject your professors and say, "They're not getting anywhere, I'm going to try something else."

Crick and I did that at one stage and we're famous practically because we thought that what other people were doing won't get anywhere."
- James D. Watson


Scientists, for all the image of their unworldliness, are, as a group, as driven by ambition, insecurity, pride, selfishness, egotism and avarice as the next person, and perhaps more so (link).

It can be difficult to credit all of the obvious sources of an idea, in part for fear of undermining the perceived uniqueness of your own contribution.

So never forget, scientists are people and not always admirable ones.  As the scientific process works on a problem, solid observations and ideas are produced and, over time, personalities are washed away.

  • If she had lived, do you think that Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel prize?
  • As a scientists, do you have to acknowledge every influence on your ideas? Is that even possible?
  • Does the quote from Watson accurately describe what Crick and Watson actually did to discover the structure of DNA?

Use Wikipedia | revised 20 November 2010
The End