Rosalind Franklin and DNA
by Anne Sayre
Norton, 221 pp., $8.95
As a story, the discovery of the structure of DNA has just about everything. To begin with, it is one of the great discoveries in the history of science. At least one scientist of high distinction has described it as the very greatest. That depends on whether one’s view is centered on life in our corner of the cosmos. To take the most understated view, the discovery is certainly the conclusive half of Darwinism. We now know how, from the primordial soup to ourselves, hereditary information has been transmitted, without which life could not have emerged. This second half of Darwinism is intellectually more final than the first, and will have more effect on how human beings think of their condition and themselves. In scientific terms, it is beautifully simple, almost ludicrously so. As one devout unbeliever cried out: “Why has God such a remarkable predilection for rather dull nucleic acids?”
Second, in the years before 1953, a fair number of people realized that the discovery would soon be made. It was “on,” as they said. In that sense, there really was a race. This is quite common in scientific history. Even in completely abstract fields, such as non-Euclidean geometry and special relativity, persons totally unconnected with one another have thought about the same things at the same time. No one understands why. In the case of the great experimental discoveries, such as the electron or DNA, the reasons are more apparent. Among the scientists involved in the race over the electron there was a good deal of concealed rancor of the kind Anne Sayre reveals in this able and high-minded book.
In the case of such competitions—there have been plenty, major and minor—scientific opinion has tended to give the credit to those who realize most clearly just what they were doing. Crick and Watson realized exactly what they were doing. From the informal judgments by scientists that a spectator can pick up, there is pretty wide agreement that there is no injustice in the fame they achieved and even less about Crick’s particular genius. There is also pretty wide agreement that injustice has been done to Rosalind Franklin. Anne Sayre’s book is essentially an attempt to rectify that.
Third, there were psychologically tangled relations between the two major competing teams, Crick and Watson in Cambridge, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in King’s College, London (all of them young in 1951, Crick and Wilkins thirty-six, Rosalind Franklin thirty, Watson twenty-three), and also within the teams themselves and with their nominal bosses. One of the oddest complications was that W. L. Bragg, one of the most generous-minded of men and normally an admirable judge of talent, couldn’t see the virtue in Crick, another generous-minded man, as expansive as the young Rutherford. It was here that Watson’s passionate will played a major part. It would have taken more than a deprecating chief to stop Watson and Crick, though two less strong characters probably would …