Who was Rosalind Franklin? The story of her life is short, tragically so, but it doesn't lack for tellers. Was she difficult Rosy, the Cruella De Vil of The Double Helix, who nearly knocked Watson's block off? Was she Dr. R.E. Franklin, the humble supporting player whom Watson and Crick thanked in the second-to-last sentence of their famous article in Nature? Or was she Franklin the feminist icon, the tormented genius who was cheated out of biochemistry's ultimate prize?
This much we know: Franklin was brilliant, beautiful, wealthy and tough to get along with. Born in 1920 into a prominent Jewish family in London, she graduated from Cambridge in 1941, then went on to do groundbreaking work on the molecular structure of coal, first in England and later in France, a country she vastly preferred to her homeland. She earned a reputation for meticulous lab work and a brusque manner. Words like difficult, bossy and impatient crop up frequently in the recollections of those who knew her. Prickly is a particular favorite.
Her impatience extended into the laboratory. Safety standards were lower in those days, and, in her eagerness to get results, Franklin often didn't bother with protective gear, even when working with radiation. Bold as she was in her work, however, Franklin was curiously standoffish with regard to the opposite sex. According to her biographer, Brenda Maddox, Franklin was still ignorant of the facts of life as late as her third year in college--this from a student of biochemistry.
In 1951 Franklin returned from Paris to study nucleic acids at King's College in London, where she produced the clearest X-ray images of crystallized DNA that anyone had ever obtained. She discovered and photographed the hydrated B form of DNA, and she established, crucially, that DNA's structure depended on an external backbone, with the bases on the inside. But here the stories diverge. According to The Double Helix, Franklin was unable to interpret her images properly and was unwilling to share them with others, to a point where Watson and Crick were forced to go around her to get at her data. According to Maddox, however, Franklin was perfectly capable of interpreting the X-ray images, although she was slow to come around to the helical model of DNA's dryer, more crystalline A form, in which the structure is harder to see. Be that as it may, Maddox argues, Watson and Crick appropriated Franklin's work without her permission and without proper acknowledgment. And Maddox goes further: she argues that Franklin was close to seeing the whole picture herself. "It is clear," Maddox writes, "that she would have got there by herself before long."
She might have--but she didn't. Franklin was the intellectual equal of Watson and Crick, but she lacked the advantage of a sympathetic collaborator, and she simply wasn't the prizewinning type. She was a bloodhound, cautious and implacable, whereas Crick and Watson were greyhounds who lived for the sprint. When they made their triumphant announcement, Franklin was gracious in defeat, accepting her peripheral role with an equanimity that surprised her colleagues. When she encountered Watson and Crick later in life, they met as friends. She probably never knew what a central part her X rays had played in their discovery.