Overlooked documents shed new light on double helix discovery

Rosalind Franklin

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Rosalind Franklin was more than just a ‘wronged heroine’

 Two newly uncovered documents offer a more nuanced account of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix. The findings challenge some of the prevailing narratives surrounding the discovery for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel prize in 1962.

By many popular accounts, the key insight that helped crack the mystery of DNA’s structure came when Wilkins showed Watson an x-ray image from Franklin’s lab without her permission. Writing in Nature, researchers Matthew Cobb and Nathaniel Comfort note that this image, known as photo 51, is ‘treated as the philosopher’s stone of molecular biology’ with Franklin often painted as having ‘sat on the image for months without realizing its significance, only for Watson to understand it at a glance’.

However, during a recent visit to an archive at Churchill College in Cambridge, UK, Cobb and Comfort discovered two previously overlooked documents – an unpublished news item that was drafted for Time magazine at the time of the double helix discovery, and a letter from one of Franklin’s colleagues to Crick – that cast new light on the discovery of the double helix. ‘Franklin did not fail to grasp the structure of DNA. She was an equal contributor to solving it,’ they write.