Even the greatest scientific discoveries come with an element of the mundane. A humble paperclip was biophysicist Raymond Gosling’s choice. Late one night in May 1952, in a chemistry lab in London, the PhD student wrapped DNA around a paperclip to keep the molecule’s fibres stretched taut in front of an X-ray source so that he could analyse their structure. The result was the celebrated ‘photograph 51’ — the image that told James Watson that DNA strands curl around each other like a twisted ladder, and that the specific pairings in the rungs are key to the mechanism of inheritance.
The rest of that story is legend. Based on their work at the University of Cambridge, UK, Watson and Francis Crick published their paper in the pages of this journal, including a beautiful diagram of the double helix that was hand-drawn by Odile Crick, Francis’ wife (J. D. Watson and F. H. C. Crick Nature 171, 737–738; 1953).
Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the famous Watson and Crick paper — and that of two other papers on DNA that appeared in the same issue. Neither was so high profile, but each was essential to the structure’s discovery. Both were written by scientists at King’s College London: one by Maurice Wilkins and his colleagues Alec Stokes and Herbert Wilson, and the other by Gosling and his PhD supervisor, Rosalind Franklin.
Learn more about the two 1953 papers that accompanied Watson and Crick’s discovery in Nature.
Only Gosling (now 86) and Watson survive from that group of seven scientists. Watson has never been shy, and his compelling swagger helped to establish another colossus of biology, the Human Genome Project. But the supporting cast matters too, even on the biggest stages.
Gosling is a Nature author, even if he is largely forgotten when the story of DNA is told. To mark the anniversary of his paperclip-inspired contribution, Nature has interviewed him. You can hear the results at go.nature.com/lizfik, in the first of a series of monthly podcasts to highlight 12 key scientific discoveries from the pages of this journal. (Future episodes in the ‘Pastcast’ series will plunder the Nature archive to investigate the discovery of X-rays in 1896, the early days of quantum theory in the 1920s and the first report of the ozone hole in 1985.)
In the interview, a humble Gosling fondly recalls that Franklin’s response to Crick and Watson’s model of the double helix was gracious and sanguine: “She didn’t use the word ‘scooped’. What she actually said was, ‘We all stand on each other’s shoulders’.”
All three papers appeared with no peer review — unthinkable now. The head of the King’s College biophysics unit, John Randall, belonged to the same London gentleman’s club — the Athenaeum — as Lionel (‘Jack’) Brimble, co-editor of Nature. Randall convinced Brimble to publish Wilkins’ paper alongside Watson and Crick’s; Franklin’s paper was added only after she petitioned for its inclusion.
This cavalier approach to submissions extended to the awarding of credit. Watson and Crick’s paper features only a glancing concession to being “stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of [Wilkins and Franklin’s] unpublished experimental results and ideas”. There is no mention of Gosling by name. Gosling left research soon after, with no bitterness; in his words, he “was no good at it”.
Discoveries take ego, genius, conflict, inspiration and fierce ambition. But they also need the hard graft of PhD students who beaver away late into the night and improvise with what they find in the stationery cupboard. They do not always receive the recognition that they deserve. Raymond Gosling is a good place to start to reverse that trend.
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