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Writing The Double Helix (Part 1)


Rosalind Franklin’s rapid acceptance of the double helix
James Watson Scientist
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But Rosalind didn’t fit into it. And we didn’t even know she was working on the B form, and she didn’t start working on the B form until sometime, in it’s in her notebooks, after the middle of February when she was leaving King’s and having spent almost all her time on the A form looked at the B form. And she may have actually only correctly interpreted the B form after we’d actually found the base pairs. So when, we never felt she had anything to do with our finding of the structure. But of course we’d used her picture, but the picture had been taken 8 months before and I think it actually was taken by Gosling. It didn’t matter. And she had given it to Wilkins in preparation of her giving up DNA. She had no, really thought that she was going to solve the structure, she was just going to write up the data as it existed. So, it’s, I almost, you know, cannot give a, a lecture where there are more than 50 people when someone doesn’t, usually a woman, raise the Rosalind Franklin issue. Now this turns out to be the, the 50th anniversary of her death this year and so Columbia University and all good American generosity has this, is it the Horwitz Prize? Yeah, Gross Horwitz Prize, a rather prestigious one. They’re giving it to two people, and a special prize to honor the 50th anniversary of Rosalind Franklin’s death. So they’re feeling that she should get a prize. Now there’s a medical school, second, third class university medical school in Chicago called the Rosalind Franklin Medical School. And so sometimes I’m honest when people say, you know, was Rosalind a good scientist? And I usually abate it by quoting Francis saying she wasn’t. She was a competent scientist but not an inspired one, and you generally don’t honor people for failing. So, now if we hadn’t existed and Pauling had published his wrong structure, and Rosalind, you know, by then had looked at the B form she might have solved it.
Then what would you have said about her being a good scientist?
Well, winning always - yes, one of the ways you call someone good is whether they win, they, they see the answer. But, you know she persisted in doing these Pattersons on the A form for a year and neglecting, she clearly wasn’t interested in theory very much in the sense that, you know, there was the Cochrane-Crick-Vand paper and she had the B form which was the perfect helical thing and she didn’t- so one way of defining it is, she wasn’t a good scientist because she didn’t talk enough to other scientists. If she’d talked enough to other scientists, she had the brain to have understood what was up. So she was too much in isolation and that was her social situation. She, afterwards she seemed to show no latent hostility to either of us, I think realizing that she had botched it. And when she, was quite fond of Odile and Francis, and after the second operation when she was dying she went and stayed with the Cricks, not her family. That’s a very strong fact! That, you know, you couldn’t have just - these people stole the DNA structure from me! No, she knew they didn’t, you know, there was just, she had just, so- Now, both Francis and I when we say, are someone a good scientist we’re sort of arguing at a pretty high level, that is, you know how to handle the frontier, and she was not a person to be at the frontier. She didn’t take big leaps, she wanted to be cautious and sure of everything.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Duration: 5 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010