When thinking about who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, we generally only remember James Watson, Frances Crick and Maurice Wilkins. But like many discoveries, there are sometimes those who lose out on the fame.
Rosalind Franklin was a British biophysicist that used X-rays to obtain an image of a DNA molecule, and Wilkins, her supervisor, showed the image to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. Whoops.
Apparently her research ended up being critical to the discovery of the double helix structure, but if her contribution was so significant, how come she wasn’t included in the fame?
It seems that Rosalind’s main downfall was that she had horrible social skills. She talked down to others, collaborated poorly, and James Watson attributed this to an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s syndrome:
“Her great handicap, which I would now say we would use the term Asperger’s, she didn’t know how to deal with other people; didn’t know how to ask for help.”
However, in Anne Sayre’s book Rosalind Franklin and DNA, she argues that a culture of sexism is what led to Rosalind being under-appreciated, and some sexist overtones have been noted in Watson’s book The Double Helix that refers to Rosalind with the patronizing nickname “Rosy” that no one actually used in real life.
She died in 1958 while battling ovarian cancer, and since the Nobel Prize was awarded 4 years after her death, she was unable to be nominated alongside Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.
While it is unclear whether or not Rosalind was the victim of sexism, or just impossible to deal with on a professional level, her talent in X-ray diffraction was unrivaled, and her photo may have been one of the key components to understanding the structure of our genetic code.