Long-Lost Letters From DNA Pioneers Reveal Conflicts and Tensions

By Jennifer Welsh | September 30, 2010 10:02 am

DNAAlmost 50 years after they won the Nobel Prize for defining the structure of DNA, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick are in the news again.

Nine boxes of “lost” correspondence (from the days before email!) between two competing groups of researchers have been unearthed. The letters, between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin of King’s College and Watson and Crick at Cambridge University, provide insight into the researchers’ mindsets while they were making these historic, game-changing discoveries.

“The [letters] give us much more flavor and examples illuminating the characters and the relations between them,” said study researcher Alexander Gann, editorial director at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press in New York. “They’re consistent with what we already believed, but they add important details.” [MSNBC.com]

Gann and Jan Witkowski published a commentary on the new material in the September 30 issue of Nature. The letters highlight the different mentalities between the two groups as they approached the project: an attitude of spirited excitement on the side of the Cambridge clan, and an air of anxiety from Wilkins.

“We are really between forces that may grind all of us to pieces,” the physicist Maurice Wilkins wrote after a disastrous attempt by Crick and his colleague James D. Watson to build a model of DNA based in part on data gathered by Rosalind Franklin. [The New York Times]

The use of Franklin’s data in the failed model, which had a triple helix, got Watson and Crick thrown off the DNA project, but in the letters Crick doesn’t seem too bothered by that turn of events.

“So cheer up and take it from us that even if we kicked you in the pants it was between friends,” Crick wrote [to Wilkins] in December 1951. “We hope our burglary will at least produce a united front in your group!” [The New York Times]

The letters were discovered when Crick’s old office mate, Sydney Brenner, donated all of his old files to Cold Spring Harbor. The letters, long thought to have been thrown out by a secretary, were discovered in the piles of notes and letters from Brenner. They are currently being digitized and will be available at the Cold Spring Harbor Library.

The letters also help to illuminate the significant role played by Franklin in the discovery, and the discord between her and the rest of the group. The ground-breaking paper, published in 1953, held only vague references to her contributions (which included the crystallography and x-ray from which Watson and Crick’s double helix idea arose).

Just before Dr Franklin was to leave King’s College, Dr Wilkins wrote to the Cambridge scientists that “the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes”. Explaining the situation to BBC News, Nature’s commissioning editor Sara Abdullah said it added to “the canon of awful things said about [Dr Franklin]. I think ‘sexist’ is what we are groping around for.” [BBC News]

Related content:
DISCOVER: Discover Dialogue: Geneticist James Watson
DISCOVER: TRIBUTE: Francis Crick (1916-2004)
80beats: Jurassic Park Science: DNA of Extinct Bird Extracted From Eggshells
The Loom: Jim Watson’s “Asian” Genes: You Read It Here First
The Loom: Aristotle, Darwin, Watson, and Co. Now Online

Image: Flickr/ynse

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Living World
  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    It’s always nice to get new information on Franklin, she sometimes gets talked about in biology classes as though she’s a feminist ghost story, part real, part legend.


  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Franklin was robbed because she was born with a vagina (a fact which was actually the death of her). Scientists like to think they’re too smart to be sexist, which can lead to them being more sexist than the rest. History is doing it’s best to bury her, as evinced by the first paragraph of this article, as if the Nobel prize is all that validates a discovery as monumental as this. Sure, if she wasn’t there someone else would have done the work – you can say the same thing of Einstein’s theories (in fact, you could say the same thing about Einstein’s theories and his wife…).


  • http://pseudomonad.blogspot.com Kea

    May Rosalind Franklin rest in peace. This is of course not surprising.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/09/30/long-lost-letters-from-dna-pioneers-reveal-conflicts-and-tensions/ martin packer

    “in part on data gathered by Rosalind Franklin”

    “The use of Wilkins’ data in the failed model”


  • Aaron

    @nick: I strongly disagree with your assertion that “History is doing it’s best to bury her.” I have only seen Dr. Franklin, her general work, and her specific contributions to this topic brought forth and elevated in recent times! For example, did you read the “Posthumous Recognition” section of the Wikipedia article that you linked to?

    Also, I find your comment:
    “Scientists like to think they’re too smart to be sexist, which can lead to them being more sexist than the rest,” confusing and contradictory. Would you please clarify?

  • Jennifer Welsh

    Hey all, thanks for reading and commenting.

    The role of Rosalind in the discovery is really interesting and it definitely tells us a lot about the culture of science in those days. What was fascinating, but I didn’t get to delve into in the article above was how Franklin and Wilkins’ relationship deteriorated quickly from a single argument.

    Supposedly, Franklin showed up to her new job and thought that Wilkins would be working for her, but I guess he thought the opposite. She ended up working for him, but it really put a dent in their relationship.

    So, anyway, @martin – since Franklin was working for Wilkins, some of the data was hers while some of it was gathered from others.

    And @nick, while it’s interesting to consider whether the Nobel committee would have included Franklin in the prize, it was actually impossible for them to do so, since she had died and the Nobels aren’t given posthumously.

    I’m excited to be able to look at these letters when they are finished being digitized! Thanks again for reading and commenting!


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ martin packer: Thanks for catching the typo. I fixed it, so it now reads “the use of Frankin’s data in the failed model…”

    Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Thanks for the info, it will be interesting to see deep reviews of this find.

    “Also, I find your comment:
    “Scientists like to think they’re too smart to be sexist, which can lead to them being more sexist than the rest,” confusing and contradictory. Would you please clarify?”

    Now you are confusing. Intelligent people such as researchers have more resources to delude themselves or others when it happens. Why would sexism be different from other delusions (or more generally, habits)?

    And where is the contradiction? Yes please, clarifying would be in order.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2010/09/30/long-lost-letters-from-dna-pioneers-reveal-conflicts-and-tensions/ martin packer

    I have brought this debate to the attention of Professor Lynne Elkin in California, who have just read the full article in “Nature” and will no doubt want to comment on the points above.


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