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DNA, Rosalind Franklin & Photo 51

This is a transcript of episode 3 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett and category judge Professor Lord Robert Winston as we continue our journey through the history of science and discovery in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast. Sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’ll be exploring the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. We have been asking you for places you think should be on the list and we’re happy to say we’ve received hundreds of nominations from people across the country. You can still nominate at HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places

Together we’ll find out just why our panel of expert judges, including Professor Robert Winston, George Clarke and Mary Beard selected these hundred locations from your nominations to tell the story of England.

We’ll be travelling across the country visiting some well-known wonders and some lesser known places on your doorstep all of which have helped to make this country how it is today. So are you ready? Let’s find out then, which places you and our judges have chosen as irreplaceable.  

Today Professor Winston explains why our next location is a building on The Strand in London. This was the location of the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit where a pretty important photograph was taken in 1952. This photograph is the data that supported a theory, a very important one - because without that theory we would not have the life changing science of genomics or genetic research. I am joined in the studio by Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England.

Jane Sidell:
Photo 51 was the x-ray crystallography image that actually confirmed the theories that existed that DNA did have the double helical structure. Rosalind Franklin took Photo 51. She was actually a chemist and research associate at King’s College. She was based in the chemistry laboratories, which were actually beneath the level of the nearby River Thames. Now, the Cambridge-based pair Watson and Crick had proposed that DNA existed in a double helical model, but they hadn’t yet proven it. And Photo 51 showed a refracted pattern which proved that the two strands ran in opposite directions. Now a colleague of Franklin shared the photo with Watson and Crick in Cambridge and this led on to their publication of the double helical structure in Nature in 1953.

This is a bit controversial - sharing data - sharing a photograph that was taken by someone else and of course this was one of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries of the whole 20th century. Certainly if it had been me that had taken the photo I would have been hopping mad. Rosalind Franklin actually died in 1958 of cancer and so she missed out on the Nobel Prize which was awarded to all her peers in 1962 and again this, for many people who are aware of this story, is a great sadness. She had of course the satisfaction of having made the discovery, and seeing how it changed science completely, but she didn’t get the Nobel Prize. And we’ve got a clip of Robert Winston and he’ll explain why he picked this for our Science & Discovery Top 10.

Sir Robert Winston:
Photo 51 was an x-ray photograph of the DNA molecule which of course is really one of the great scientific scandals. Jim Watson who subsequently won the Nobel Prize and really treated this as his own had pretty well purloined this photograph from his female colleague at King’s College. She never got the Nobel Prize. She was a woman working in a male-dominated laboratory and she never actually got the full recognition for what she had done.

I suppose really to my mind what is most important about her work is that now x-ray crystallography is a rapidly-improved technique which is massively used for a whole range of protein molecules. One of my colleagues is able to grow all sorts of crystals and produce remarkable photographs that give us an extraordinary insight into the function of different proteins. So actually crystallography, where the MRC Biophysics Unit was established, is a very important technique and at the time they were one of the departments in the world that was leading in this technology.

Emma Barnett:
Franklin was a London-born Jewish woman working, as Professor Robert Winston has said, in a very male-dominated field. So now we can hear Professor Soraya de Chadarevian giving her take on just how Franklin’s work was recognised.

Professor Soraya de Chadarevian:
I’m a historian of science working at the University of California, Los Angeles in California and before coming here I was working in Cambridge and I worked extensively on the history of molecular biology and the history of 19th- and 20th-century life sciences.

Rosalind Franklin studied natural sciences at Cambridge at Newnham College.  That was at a time when women could study in Cambridge. She then moved to Paris and did her PhD there and also continued working in Paris and it was only in 1951 that she came back to England, to London, to take up the position at King’s College. And this was a strong decision for her to come back from Paris where I think she was very happy and had very good working conditions. It certainly was coming home but, you know, Britain in the early 1950s, Post World War II – I mean… and also the whole setup at King’s College London was – they always speak about the basement lab, right? She decided to come back and I am sure the family played an important role and it seemed like a good job but the Paris years were happy years for her.

So John Randall invited her to work on the project about the structural determination of DNA and she got going on that, very focused. Morris Wilkins was already working on the structure of DNA. What Randall said to Rosalind Franklin and what he said to Maurice Wilkins, his long-time collaborator was not completely clear. I think Rosalind Franklin was told that this was her project whilst Wilkins thought it was his project and maybe they would work together on it so this set up some kind of tension between the two and I think Wilkins felt a bit cut out of that project. I think Randall wasn’t completely open.
One important contribution that Rosalind Franklin made to the study of the structure of DNA was to sort out that there were two different structures: that there is an A structure and a B structure.  

The Photo 51 is of the B structure and for someone... it’s just one of a series but it is a particularly nice and clear one, so a nice diffraction image means when these diffraction spots are clear and give as much detail as a lot of us can pull out of it. The importance is that this cross that one can see on the photograph tells us that the molecule is a helix. So this was a very important element of figuring out the structure of the DNA molecule. And then Wilkins showed to Watson when he was visiting King’s College London which then helped the Cambridge duo to build a model. It was only in 1968 when we got to know all these details but what was Rosalind Franklin thinking?  

She died in 1958 but, you know, there is a very interesting after story after 1953 because I think it is really important to look beyond 1953 because Rosalind was unhappy at King’s College London and she left in 1953 just about the time these three papers were published in nature.  

She contributed in decisive ways to the structural determination of DNA, she also did very important work on the structure of viruses and before on the carbon structure when she was in Paris. So she was certainly an excellent scientist and she also became very friendly with Francis Crick. Indeed she spent the last weeks of her life with the Cricks.  

The big tragedy is that she died so early, just aged 37 I think, and that really cut her career and also the credit she would have deserved. And if we look at this reception story we can really trace the whole discussions and this difficulty and fraud and still-not-finished discussion about the role of women in science. Buildings are named after her (and fellowships for women in science), and I mean I think by now she has gotten some of the credit she deserves.

Emma Barnett:
Well, that is it for this episode. We’ll have another irreplaceable location to explore next time where we’ll look to the stars and beyond. You don’t want to miss it. And just to remind you, you can still vote for the places you find irreplaceable to be featured in a future episode of our history of England at HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places

You can also join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #100places. We do love to hear from you so do make sure you rate, review and subscribe, crucially, to this podcast then you will never miss an episode. Thank you so much for joining me, Emma Barnett. I’ll see you next time for another episode of Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

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