The aphorism "history is always written by the victors" is as true for science as for geopolitics. Certainly it was the case for the discovery in 1953 of the double helical structure of DNA, the most important discovery in 20th-century biology. The victors were James Watson and Francis Crick, who together with Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for crossing the finish line first. The loser was Rosalind Franklin, who produced the x-ray data that most strongly supported the structure but was not properly acknowledged for her contributions.
According to Watson's best-selling 1968 account of the great race, The Double Helix, Franklin was not even a contender, much less a major contributor. He painted her as a mere assistant to Wilkins who "had to go or be put in her place" because she had the audacity to think she might be able to work on DNA on her own. Worse yet, she "did not emphasize her feminine qualities," lamented Watson, who refers to her only as "Rosy." "The thought could not be avoided," he concluded, "that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab."
This article was originally published with the title The Twisted Road to the Double Helix.