crick’s lost letters

October 1, 2010 at 7:05 am | | history, news, science community

Some revealing letters of Francis Crick have been found—mostly to Maurice Wilkins—and they discuss Rosalind Franklin. Here are some of the excerpts that I found interesting. For instance, this letter from Wilkins to Watson and Crick after they proposed the double-helix model:

My dear Francis,

I gather you have got the coordinates of your model or some worked out. Do you think we could have a copy of what you have?

The crystalline data is clearing up nicely. To think that Rosie had all the 3D data for 9 months & wouldn’t fit a helix to it and there was I taking her word for it that the data was anti-helical. Christ.

We have redone a lot of the 3D more accurately on mouse & will need all the extra accuracy for dealing with some of the finer points.

Regards & to Odile too.



P.S. I think I have a flat.

But “Rosie” had been focusing on the A structure of DNA, which generated clearer crystal diffraction pattern images. Unfortunately for her, crystalline DNA-A wasn’t helical. Crick agreed when he eventually saw her data:

This is the first time I have had an opportunity for a detailed study of the picture of Structure A, and I must say I am glad I didn’t see it earlier, as it would have worried me considerably.

All in all, it sounds like Franklin was generally unfriendly to her colleagues (and competitors). Wilkins wrote to Crick of Franlkin’s leaving King’s College:

I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes.

It sounds like her colleagues didn’t like her too much. But there was friction from the beginning: Wilkins thought that Franklin was going to work for him … or at least they would work together on DNA … and Franklin had been told that she would work independently. What a mess.

I feel bad for Franklin having to deal with these sexist jerks. Watson and Crick were probably the most annoying, because they didn’t do any experiments; instead, they’d listen to Franklin (and others) present their data, then run off and make a model. Annoying. Intellectual thievery almost. (And Watson and Crick admit as much, referring to it as “burglary” in one of their letters.)

But on the other hand, it seems Franklin made some serious mistakes interpreting her data and was quite abrasive. No angels here. No devils (or witches?) either.

I suspect that if everyone had worked together and been friendly, Watson and Crick would have proposed the correct structure much earlier. Not only that, but I think Franklin would have been given more credit by the boys. But that’s just my speculation. I just know that I’d prefer to collaborate with folks than fight with them.


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  1. I gotta disagree on the point that basing a model on someone else’s data–without collecting data of your own–is anything close to intellectual thievery.

    I’m speaking in general terms; I don’t know the specifics of how the DNA people shared data, but so long as the source of the data was referenced and the data weren’t stolen (i.e., they were presented publically), developing a model on existing data seems perfectly acceptable.

    Astronomers do it all the time…after one year, data collected on government telescopes is made available to everyone, regardless of whether the investigator who asked for it has published yet or not. I don’t think Einstein collected any of his own data, either.

    Comment by Paul — October 1, 2010 #

  2. What a messed up working environment, where you’ve got to be worried about getting scooped by the guys down the hall who have access to your data by proximity and a talkative boss/collaborator. I wonder how closely the “colloquia” resembled group meetings as opposed to polished seminars. Giving a group meeting on work-in-progress with your competitors in the audience has got to suck.

    Comment by Paul — October 1, 2010 #

  3. There is a fairly funny comic about Rosalind Franklin’s interaction with Watson and Crick.

    Comment by superkuh — October 5, 2010 #

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