Science & Environment

'Lost' letters show strain between DNA pioneers

James Watson and Francis Crick
Image caption James Watson (left) was only 24 when together with Francis Crick (right) he published the paper that first described the structure of DNA

Newly-found letters of the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA highlight tensions around this major scientific breakthrough.

Extracts from the "missing" correspondence are published in the journal Nature.

Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the DNA-related work.

But many others contributed, including Rosalind Franklin - whose efforts were called "witchcraft" in one letter.

All three Nobel Prizewinners worked in molecular biology, but in different labs.

Essentially, there were two main groups, pursuing the discovery of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) structure: Dr Wilkins and Dr Franklin at King's College in London, and Dr Watson and Dr Crick at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.

Besides strained relationships, the letters and postcards also give insights into the personalities of the key players.

Image caption Rosalind Franklin's work was crucial in the discovery of the structure of DNA

The Cambridge team used some of Dr Franklin's results to build their first DNA model in December 1951.

This triple-helix model was wrong, and the scientists were barred from doing any further DNA work.

Dr Wilkins then wrote to his colleagues: "This is to say how bloody browned off I am entirely, and how rotten I feel about it all, and how entirely friendly I am (though it may appear differently).

"We are really between forces which may grind all of us into little pieces…"

But Dr Crick and Dr Watson appeared to be rather breezy: "…cheer up, and take it from us that even if we kicked you in the pants, it was between friends," the pair wrote in response.

"We hope our little burglary will at least produce a united front in your group!"

The last phrase referred to strained relations between Dr Wilkins and Dr Franklin. When the latter arrived to King's College, her colleague thought that she would be working for him, but she believed otherwise.

This misunderstanding poisoned their relationship, and the tensions were highlighted even further in other letters.

Just before Dr Franklin was to leave King's College, Dr Wilkins wrote to the Cambridge scientists that "the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes".


Explaining the situation to BBC News, Nature's commissioning editor Sara Abdullah said it added to "the canon of awful things said about [Dr Franklin]".

"I think 'sexist' is what we are groping around for.

Image caption Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize with Dr Watson and Dr Crick

"Obviously, this is a different time, it's 1953. There was personal tension; she was very unusual in being a leading woman in science at that time.

"And there were these different styles of working - all these things are captured there, in those few words."

In early 1953, Maurice Wilkins showed James Watson the famous "Photograph 51".

It was the crucial X-ray image of DNA made by Dr Franklin in the previous months, and it helped the two Cambridge biologists to develop the historic - and correct - double-helix model.

"To think that Rosie had all the 3D data for nine months and wouldn't fit a helix to it, and there was I taking her word for it that the data was anti-helical," wrote Dr Wilkins to Dr Crick.


And when the study was published in Nature in April 1953, there were only vague references to Dr Franklin's contribution to the titanic achievement in molecular biology.

The correspondence had been thought lost.

Image caption The famous paper on the structure of DNA was published on 25 April, 1953

But it was found earlier this year by Alexander Gann and Jan Witkowski of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York among papers that had belonged to another scientist, Sydney Brenner, who had shared an office with Francis Crick in Cambridge.

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