Updated at 2 a.m., Monday, January 28, 2008.
Updated at 4:30 a.m., Tuesday, January 29, 2008.
Last October saw the birth of a noun, “Watsoning,” following the media show trial that destroyed the career of America’s most respected scientist, geneticist James Watson. Watson’s “crime” was in telling the truth in a British newspaper interview about what science knows about the links between race and intelligence. Watson was going to go down in flames, in any event, but had he stuck by his guns, he at least could have been a tragic hero. Instead, as in the old Soviet show trials, he confessed to a non-existent crime, and recanted. Watson’s phony “confession” brought him no more compassion from his tormentors than had those of Stalin’s victims. An acute observer sees in Watson’s capitulation yet another expression of the same lack of character and intellectual integrity that he has shown repeatedly in his career.
This afternoon my friend, the writer Michael D. Shaw, sent me his article, “Double Helix Double Cross.” It’s about the British scientist Rosalind Franklin, without whom James Watson, Francis Crick (1916-2004), and Maurice Wilkins (also 1916-2004!) would never have shared the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA’s double helix structure.
Although trained as a chemist, in her DNA research, Franklin was also just as much a physicist and a biologist. Indeed, the lab in which she, Crick, Wilkins and Watson were then working was devoted to “biophysics research.”
Prior to the media show trial last October that left the 79-year-old Watson disgraced, he had been considered America’s greatest living scientist. The firestorm had followed an interview that Watson, who was visiting England to promote his new book, had given to an old student of his who was working for a British newspaper, in the course of which he had told the truth about scientific knowledge of race and intelligence. However, when the heat came, rather than stand up for science, and be an example to honest researchers everywhere, Watson melted like an ice cream cone on a summer’s day.
While Watson had previously gotten in trouble for being a loose cannon, he had never been accused of having an excess of scientific scruples.
Shaw emphasizes that Watson has long sought to diminish Franklin’s true contributions to the DNA discoveries. He writes,
The scientist in question is the late Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant researcher who had produced the beautiful x-ray diffraction photos that put Watson on the right track as to DNA’s structure. Before seeing these photos, especially the famous photograph number 51, he and Crick, utilizing Linus Pauling’s hypothesis, were headed to nowheresville as to the molecular structure. That Franklin was unaware that her photos were shown to Watson surely adds to the controversy.
What makes it even worse is that Franklin was to die of ovarian cancer in 1958, at age 37, and was thus permanently knocked out of Nobel consideration. As you will see, this whole matter provides an interesting look at big-time science, and the small-time people involved….
As for Watson, he still arrogantly maintains that Franklin could take great pictures, but was not able to interpret her own data. For him to posit such a preposterous notion at this late date can only make me believe that he would have been lost without her pictures. Watson is protesting a bit too much….
Perhaps the saddest part of Franklin’s story is that she took one for the team. There is little doubt that her cancer was caused by overexposure to radiation during her career of x-ray crystallography. Like Marie Curie before her, radiation did her in. Of course, the only difference is that Curie received two Nobels (in 1903 and 1911) along with plenty of other honors, and lived to see her 66th birthday, while Rosalind Franklin died young and will forever be a footnote.
It’s a powerful article, written with a brevity I can only envy, and contains a gem of a portrait of the eccentric Franklin and the perverse social world of often egotistical and unscrupulous scientists that she and the future Nobel Laureates inhabited.
In another article on Franklin, David Ardell writes,
In James Watson’s account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, entitled The Double Helix, Rosalind Franklin was depicted inaccurately as an underling of Maurice Wilkins at King’s College. In fact, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were peers. Franklin had discovered that DNA could crystallize into two different forms, an A form and a B form. John Randall gave Franklin the A form and Wilkins the B form, assigning them each the task of elucidating their molecular structure….
After discovering the existence of the A and B forms of DNA, Rosalind Franklin also succeeded in developing an ingenious and laborious method to separate the two forms, providing the first DNA crystals pure enough to yield interpretable diffraction patterns. She then went on to obtain excellent X-ray diffraction patterns of crystalline B-form DNA and, using a combination of crystallographic theory and chemical reasoning, discovered important basic facts about its structure. She discovered that the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA lies on the outside of the molecule, not the inside as was previously thought. She discovered the helical structure of DNA has two strands, not three as proposed in competing theories. She gave quantitative details about the shape and size of the double helix. The all-important missing piece of the puzzle, that she could not discover from her data, was how the bases paired on the inside of the helix, and thus the secret of heredity itself. That discovery remained for Watson and Crick to make.
After Randall presented Franklin’s data and unpublished conclusions at a routine seminar, aspects of her results were informally communicated to Watson and Crick by Maurice Wilkins and Max Perutz, without her or John Randall’s knowledge. It was Watson and Crick who put all the pieces of the puzzle together from a variety of sources including Franklin’s results, to build their ultimately correct and complete description of DNA’s structure. Their model for the structure of DNA appeared in the journal Nature in April, 1953, alongside Franklin’s own report.
Thus was Franklin’s contribution at least equal to, if not superior to that of Wilkins. Had she lived until 1962, there would have been quite a row, considering that the Nobel rules are such that only “Up to three candidates may be listed per entry.” For some, Franklin’s proved to be a most timely death.
Mike Shaw believes that the same lack of character that led James Watson to deny credit to a world-class scientist after her death led him to back down in the face of a vicious, organized attack on science and recant his beliefs, which happened to be true, in favor of anti-scientific, politically correct lies about race and intelligence.
In a meditation on the song “The Man That Got Away,” which Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin wrote for Judy Garland in the 1954 movie classic, A Star is Born, disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz argued that the story behind Gershwin’s lyrics was his grief for his brother and musical collaborator, George. George Gershwin (1898-1937), who died at the age of 38 of a brain tumor, was the greatest musical talent America has so far produced. For Ira Gershwin, says Schwartz, George Gershwin was the man that got away.
In the history of the Nobel Prize, Roz Franklin was the gal that got away.
David Baxter just wrote me that he is producing a movie in London based on Franklin’s life, with Feel Films, with the working title, The Broken Code. The picture is to be directed by Peter Bogdanovich “before the end of the year.” The story will be from Baxter’s Alfred P. Sloan Award-winning screenplay, which “is being polished by Charles Wood” (Iris). Baxter adds, “My writing mentor was Anne Sayre, the woman who wrote the first biography on Rosalind (Rosalind Franklin & DNA) and who was her close friend. Anne died of scleroderma in 1988 and it took me some time to decide to continue writing the script because she was a major character in the story and was one of the only people who went out on a limb and questioned Watson's depiction of Rosalind in The Double Helix.”