What triggered this fury, this swooping white heat at the pit of my stomach?
When I came across this on PBS. And more importantly, this appalling interview, given by James Watson.
Basically it comes down to this. (And caveat lector. This post might get theoretical with a healthy dosage of scientific joo-joo. You stand warned)
Remember the Watson - Crick Model? If you are a Biology major or if you have taken courses in genetics, molecular biology, or at least dabbled in high school biology, this model would be mighty familiar to you. For the uninitiated, let me break it down for you, to the best of my ability at least.
In marginally simple terms, their model proposed that the structure of the DNA was a cross linked double helix with alternating links of deoxyribose and phosphate. The two strands of the double helix are cross linked by purine and pyrimidine bases which basically project inwards from the deoxyribose sugars. More importantly, the bases were held together by hydrogen bonds where a pyrimidine base on one strand always paired with a purine base on the other. And this was further demonstrated chemically, by exemplifying the fact that Adenine always paired with Thymine, and Cytosine with Guanine.
Now nobody wakes up and finds a profound and brilliant biological discovery knocking at their door. I am in no way undermining the indescribable amount of work put in by both Crick and Watson in their groundbreaking discovery. But as I said, nobody wakes up and fumblingly trips into a breakthrough of such magnitude. Obviously I do not know James Watson and Francis Crick personally, but I would surmise that there was a long and a painstakingly methodical process involved, where they used work previously done in their field of research to understand and expound on their theories or models before they came upon their breakthrough discovery.
Indeed, Watson and Crick used the work of Erwin Chargaff (Chargaff’s Rules, to be more specific), Linus Pauling (suggested that deoxyribonucleic acid may have a helical structure) and last but arguably the most important, one Rosalind Franklin; to expound on their ideas and extrapolate on their own theories about the structure of the DNA.
Who is this rank nobody, and a woman at that, while of course, everyone knows that there are no women in the upper echelons of science? * She was a British scientist (physical chemistry) and a highly gifted crystallographer who was given the task of researching and working on the X-ray diffraction of DNA and nucleic acids at King’s college, London. She was supposedly assigned to work with Maurice Wilkins, who was also the deputy director of the lab, but she, not being aware of this piece of information (as Wilkins was away on vacation when she arrived, and the information in her hiring letter was markedly ambiguous) and the DNA work being on hold in the biophysics lab in the recent past, almost all the work was assigned to Rosalind Franklin. When Wilkins arrived, given the not-so-subtle sexism at the time, he immediately assumed that Franklin was one of the technical assistants, a glorified lackey of sorts. And this set the stage for their strained relationship, from then on.
Now things got fairly drawn-out and convoluted when Watson attended a lecture in 1951 given by Franklin on her work on the DNA, thus far. She had taken excellent, hitherto unseen pictures using her expertise in X-ray diffraction techniques, and had come to the conclusion that DNA could exist in two forms, a ‘wet’ form and a ‘dry’ form, depending upon the relative humidity in the air. This led her to correctly deduce that the phosphates were on the outside, thus situating them in the backbone of the helix. Watson did not take any notes and equipped only with nebulous recollections, explained what he has seen and heard at her lecture to Crick. They then built an unsuccessful DNA model with a triple helix and invited Wilkins and Franklin to comment on it, whereupon Franklin straightforwardly pointed out the fallacies in their model. The head of their department immediately ordered them to stop their research, but as we all know, that really did not stop them.
To cut a long story short, Franklin started working on her X-ray diffractions alone, keeping her findings to herself and an assistant. Through her work, she came to realize that in the ‘wet’ form of the DNA, the water would be attracted to the phosphates in the backbone, leading her to of course, comprehend that the bases were inside. In 1952, she arguably took the best picture of the ‘wet’ form of the DNA through her X-ray diffractions (in other words the B form), which clearly illustrated all the marks of a double helix, and she suspected it as so, but she refused to release her work until she had further proof of her findings. She turned to the ‘dry’ form instead, which she knew, with persnickety and convoluted calculations and measurements, might lead her to work out the structure of the DNA. This sidetracked her completely, and this most likely turned out to be her downfall, in plain terms.
Meanwhile Watson and Crick, specifically Crick with his understanding of Chargaff’s Rules and Pauling’s ideas that proteins may have a helical structure, came to similar conclusions as Franklin, but he did not possess the type of data that Franklin had so painstakingly collected, to back his theory up.
All that changed, when in 1953, Raymond Gosling, a graduate student who had assisted Franklin in producing the then extraordinary photographs of the ‘wet’ form or the ‘B’ form of DNA in 1952, handed her results to Wilkins, without her consent. Through a curious turn of events and a set of uncanny circumstances, Wilkins handed over her groundbreaking work to Watson, again, without her knowledge or her consent. Watson and Crick also received a Medical Research Council report authored by Franklin in 1952 which contained almost all of her work on the DNA thus far. It was also meant to be strictly private. This particular report illustrated the Watson and Crick’s model’s basic mistake, where they had repeatedly put the bases on the outside. Through her work which was detailed in the MRC report, she had not only mentioned that the phosphates were on the outside but she had also mentioned the interphosphate distances. Watson and Crick immediately knew that they had all the information they needed to make a double helix model; indeed, Crick comprehended that her data pointed towards an antiparallel double helix DNA structure.
And the rest is history.
Rosalind finally came to realize that she might be left behind in the DNA race and produced a draft paper, where she had expounded on her anti- parallel double helix structure for the ‘A’ form on March 17th 1953. She did not pay attention to the fact that Crick and Watson were racing to publish their findings. For all she knew, their department head had forbade them from conducting any research on DNA, and she just did not bother to probe beyond that. Watson and Crick published their findings in Nature, in 1953 on March 18th, where they suggest a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid, providing minimal experimental proof. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins (yes, Wilkins) accepted the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine. Franklin had passed on by then. She succumbed to cancer in 1958. She was 38 years old.
Why am I doing this? Why am I indignant? Because Watson, in his portentous interview, states that,
He smiles.”Rosalind is my cross," he says slowly. "I'll bear it. I think she was partially autistic." He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. "I'd never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind's behaviour.
Yes, because undermining a woman whose data you took and used without her knowledge or consent, by calling her autistic, is absolutely kind and gracious. ‘Considered diagnosis’, I’m sure. Now I do know that the term ‘autistic’ is not and should not be used disparagingly. But by Watson’s statement, it is clear that he was obviously trying to besmirch her and insult her memory by his usage of that term. And let’s not forget that Watson is also a racist bigot to boot.
And then there is this gem,
He adds: "Francis didn't think Rosalind was a great scientist. That was Francis at his most honest. The truth was she couldn't think in three dimensions very well."
Ah, but of course. Being a brilliant crystallographer, she must have been woefully incapable of thinking three-dimensionally. With her bumbling ignorance and her utter ineptitude to process anything with an extra plane, she perfected the art of X-ray diffraction and took the most extraordinary picture of the ‘B’ form of DNA (photo 51), for her time. Oh yes, it makes perfect sense.
Is there anything else left in Watson’s kitty of fantastical and desperate lies about Rosalind Franklin? I am astounded at his determination to frenetically try and insult and undermine her, even after all these years. She has passed on, hasn’t she? In Watson’s own words, he says,
No one thought about Rosalind [Franklin], because she was dead.
So why can’t he leave her alone? Is it because of the fact that none of the three: Watson, Crick or Wilkins, bothered to cite Rosalind Franklin at all in any of their Nobel lectures, while they managed to cite 98 other references? Is it a gnawing sense of guilt because of that? Or it is resentment at the scores of scientists (including Watson, who begrudgingly admitted that she deserved to win) who believe that Rosalind, had she been alive at the time, deserved the prize too?
What do you think? If she had been alive, do you think that Rosalind Franklin would have gotten the Nobel Prize for her work along with Watson and Crick in 1962, instead of Wilkins?
* For those of you who think that sexism has all but disappeared in the upper echelons of science today, I'm sorry, but you must be having a different grasp on reality than the rest of us. It has reduced, from Rosalind's time, but it has not disappeared. Oh no, it hasn't.