"Stop, that's my X-ray!" The true story behind the discovery of DNA

Interesting find today while looking through the archive of Hark, a Vagrant! a web-comic drawn by Canada’s own Kate Beaton. Here’s the comic: 

Hark, A Vagrant! by Kate Beaton

The comic depicts Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick. Do the names ring any bells?

If they do, it’s likely Watson and Crick, and you are likely remembering a 9th grade science lesson on the men attributed with the discovery of the structure of DNA. They, along with a gentleman named Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this breakthrough in 1962. 

The question some people now ask is – did they deserve it, or should someone else’s name have been included on the list of recipients for the Nobel Prize?

The thing is, their discovery was due in large part to an X-ray belonging to Rosalind Franklin, who was also in the race to discover the structure of DNA. Watson himself attributes his original identification of the of DNA to Franklin’s X-ray. In his autobiography, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson wrote: “The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to rush. The pattern was unbelievable…” (167)

The controversy revolves around how they got the X-ray in the first place. How did Franklin’s research end up in the hands of Watson and Crick? Did they misappropriate it? Was it stolen from Franklin’s lab with the help of Maurice Wilkins, her co-researcher? (Wilkins’ name, you’ll notice, IS on the list of Nobel Prize laureates for 1962.)

Either way, it’s a tragic demonstration of how a woman’s contribution to a major event is often downplayed or completely ignored by the scientific community. And, while the actual event may not have played out exactly as the comic portrays -- it's still pushes us to think about what it would have been like for women trying to make it in a time that was not always kind, or even fair, to women.

Interestingly enough, we recently published a book titled The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering which touches on Franklin’s work, as well as on the work of other pioneers in science such as Mileva Einstein and Sophie Germain. If you are interested in learning more about the lives and contributions these women made to science, check it out!

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