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Rosalind Franklin and the Incident With Nobel Prize

The April 25, 1953 issue of journal Nature published three consecutive papers, and has given the world one of the most exciting discoveries of 20th century, the “molecular structure of nucleic acids”, for which Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. Unfortunately in the entire proceeding the name of a key co-discoverer Franklin was missing. It was accused that Franklin’s original picture of x-ray diffraction (Photograph #51) was the source of information for the double helix model of DNA. Realizing this “mistake” on the part of Nobel Foundation, and due to “hue and cry” from academic fraternity, a special committee was constituted to revisit the controversy, especially the worthiness of Franklin to be a co-winner of the Prize, to be considered posthumously.

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As a member of a special committee to review the matter, the following recommendations are made to the trustees of the prize-awarding bodies: Franklin identified two forms of DNA – “A” & “B” occurring in two different hydrated states. While the x-ray diffraction pattern was already known for crystalline “A” form, Franklin obtained a pattern for the paracrystalline “B” form. She concluded that the helix in the “B” form is 34 Å long and contains 10 base pairs separated by 3.4 Å. She also described the 3′- or 5′-phosphodiester bonds between the adjacent phosphate groups and precisely calculated bond lengths. This led to the predicted arrangement of phosphate backbone on the outside the helix rather than towards dense inner core, as was previously believed. She also coined the term “antiparallel” to depict two strands of DNA running in opposite direction. Although the base pairing was not her finding, she mentioned the relevance of “enol” and “keto” forms of nitrogenous bases which were the configurations enabling base-pairing. Her later work was on RNA viruses and tobacco mosaic virus. On 17 March 1953 Franklin prepared a draft of B-DNA structure for publication in the April issue of Nature. It appears from this description that the contribution of Watson and others was merely the alignments, pairing and other arrangement of bases and pentose sugars in the helix core, a feature that can not be deduced from x-ray photographs. Although Franklin’s paper was categorized technically superior, it seemed as if it was made to corroborate the contents of preceding two papers with some additional information. So what went wrong with her nomination? Was she a victim of gender bias prevailing in the King’s Medical Research Council, or her confrontational attitude was not liked by some, particularly Wilkins, working in institute, or was it her inclination for French colleagues that deterred the British scientists? The climax was that she had to leave her Photo #51, transfer her fellowship to another institute and stop working on the DNA project. Although Franklin’s work was quoted adequately by Watson and others, it sounded as if it was the work of Wilkins rather than Franklin. Looking into all the facts the committee is sympathetic to her and appreciates her independent contributions.

While making a closer examination of the three papers I found that there was no plagiarized material. Importantly, the Fig. 1 of Wilkins’s paper is of deoxypentose nucleic acid of Escherichia coli which is, as stated by them, not a paracrystalline DNA. Conversely, the photograph in Franklin’s paper is a different one and represents the paracrystalline state of a sodium salt of calf thymus “B” DNA. Possibly many other unpublished photographs were also available. Watson & Crick’s paper quoted that they were stimulated by Wilkins and Franklin’s unpublished experimental results, so the Photo #51was not kept hidden. Moreover, Franklin’s paper quoted that just x-ray data, as previously published for fibrous DNA, is not stand alone evidence for helical and other structural features, but surprisingly her paper was based on the same features and was not supported by chemical analyses. Technically, Watson & Crick’s paper was the first on DNA model and Wilkins was on DNA structure, while Franklin’s was just a supplement to the earlier papers. As the work has to be printed as the first evidence, and more than three persons can not share the Prize (Statutes 2, 3, 8), the then committee awarded the prize to the authors of first two papers. It is also stated that plagiarized material was not used, and proper acknowledgement and due recognition was given to the resource providers. Watson advocated for Franklin’s nomination for Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Outstanding importance of work (Statute 4) favors Wilkins’s rather than Franklin’s paper as it mentioned the importance of DNA structure in coding the genetic makeup of different life forms. Franklin died in 1958 and as only living persons can be nominated (Statute 7) her nomination in 1962 was out of question. After 50 years the proceedings were disclosed in 2008 and it was revealed that she was never nominated for the award and can not be nominated posthumously. Given the above facts the committee decided to “allow the original award to stand unchanged (option C)”.

Sources

Elkin, Lynne Osman. “Rosalind Franklin and the double helix.” Physics Today 56.3 (2003) : 42-49.

Franklin, R.E., and R.G. Gosling. “Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate.” Nature 171 (1953) : 440-441.

Watson, J.D., and F.H.C. Crick. “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acids.” Nature 171 (1953) : 437-438.

Wilkins, M.H.F., A.R. Stokes, and H.R. Wilson. “Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids.” Nature 171 (1953) : 438-440.

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