latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal:
Last week saw a 50th-anniversary celebration in Stockholm of the
Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s structure. That structure
instantly revealed a key secret of life: that an infinitely
recombinable sequence of four chemical bases, pairing with each
other in two ways, explains life’s ability to grow and copy itself.
Appropriately, two pairs of people made the discovery: James Watson
and Francis Crick in Cambridge, England; and Maurice Wilkins and
Rosalind Franklin in London.
But there was a fifth person, who’s often forgotten in the
telling of the tale: Raymond Gosling. He at last tells part of his
own tale in some of the sidebar annotations of a remarkable new
book, “The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix,”
edited by Alex Gann and Jan Witkowski. The book’s text is Dr.
Watson’s original and brilliant novelistic account of how the
discovery was made, but Drs. Gann and Witkowski have added photos,
extracts of letters and footnotes to fill out the picture, in the
process vindicating almost all of Watson’s characterizations.
I spoke to Dr. Gosling at the book’s launch in London. He bears
no bitterness at being left out of the Nobel Prize. A graduate
student at the time, he was working under the direction of others,
and his own career went a different way, into medical physics. But
it was he, supervised by Maurice Wilkins, who in 1950 first took an
X-ray photograph of a DNA fiber, which he had wound around a bent
paper clip. Of that moment, he writes: “Those discrete diffraction
spots emerging on the film in the developing dish was a truly
eureka moment. Maurice and I drank several glasses of his
It was this photo that electrified Dr. Watson when he saw it
presented by Dr. Wilkins at a conference in Naples, Italy. If, as
the image implied, the gene had a regular structure, then
elucidating that structure might explain its properties. And this
quest brought Dr. Watson to (then) Mr. Crick, whom he persuaded to
moonlight from the study of proteins and help him tackle DNA.
It was a different photo, taken in May 1952, that led to the
solution by giving crucial clues to the dimensions and angles of
the DNA molecule. Francis Crick was told about this “Photograph 51”
by Jim Watson, who had been shown it by Maurice Wilkins, who had
been given it by Rosalind Franklin. It’s usually described as her
photo, but Raymond Gosling says that he took it as well. By that
time he’d been transferred from Dr. Wilkins’s to Dr. Franklin’s
Dr. Gosling’s frequent omission might annoy a less equable man.
Two other Nobel Prizes from the same era-for streptomycin and for
pulsars-have led to much more contentious allegations of oversight.
In the first, Selman Waksman and Albert Schatz fought bitterly over
whether Dr. Waksman unjustly got the prize alone. In the second,
Antony Hewish got the prize but his student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell,
In the DNA story, there has long been a movement to rescue the
reputation of Rosalind Franklin, who suffered from the typical
sexism of the 1950s and died too soon to win the Nobel Prize. The
role played by Dr. Franklin’s data was certainly underplayed in
most early accounts, but her rehabilitation has ironically obscured
somewhat the fact that Dr. Gosling deserves a lot more credit than
he generally gets for collecting those data.
When I put this to Dr. Gosling, he deflected me by saying that
John Randall, the head of the lab where he, Dr. Wilkins and Dr.
Franklin all worked, never gets enough credit for gambling early
that DNA was as important as protein and that its structure might
yield to attack. Self-effacing as ever, he was quick to remind me
that science always requires a broad collaboration: Many people
build the arch, even if the person who places the keystone gets
most of the credit.