Rosalind Franklin’s role in discovery of DNA structure finally honoured with new blue plaque at Eagle pub in Cambridge
Rosalind Franklin has had her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA recognised on a commemorative blue plaque at The Eagle pub in Cambridge – 20 years after her male colleagues.
The plaque acknowledges the celebration by Francis Crick and James Watson in The Eagle Inn on Bene’t Street of the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953.
The plaque was first installed in 2003 but has provoked debate because it made no mention of Rosalind Franklin, whose scientific work provided data on which the discovery relied. Someone even scrawled ‘+Franklin’ in graffiti on the plaque.
The new plaque was unveiled on Wednesday, August 30, by Prof Christopher Howe, deputy master of Corpus Christi College, which owns The Eagle.
James Littlewood, chief executive of the charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future, which runs the plaque scheme, says: “The Cambridge & District Blue Plaque Scheme commemorates people and events that have made a significant impact on the area, the UK or, indeed, the world.
“When the plaque was installed it was to commemorate the celebration in The Eagle pub and Rosalind Franklin was not included because she wasn’t at the event. However, we noticed that tour guides often use the plaque as a place to tell the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA and so it seemed wrong that Franklin and other scientists were left off and we decided to make the change to reflect their contribution.”
For decades The Eagle was the local pub for scientists from the nearby Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was there on February 28, 1953, that Francis Crick and James Watson, who had been working at the laboratory that day, celebrated their discovery of the structure of DNA.
By the 1950s the University Cavendish Laboratory had long been famous for pioneering work on the structure of the atom. It had also become, in 1947, the temporary home of a Medical Research Council Unit, researching the structure of biological molecules.
Crick and Watson found themselves sharing an office in the Cavendish and began working, with Maurice Wilkins, on identifying the structure of DNA.
They relied on work being done by Rosalind Franklin and her research student Raymond Gosling. Franklin, a Cambridge graduate of Newnham College, was working in Wilkins’s team. She was concentrating on X-ray diffraction to examine the structure of DNA, and described her findings at a colloquium in November 1951. On this basis, Watson and Crick constructed a model of the structure. When they invited her to see it, Franklin pointed out a number of errors. Watson had not remembered her findings accurately enough.
There was a pause of several months until information from other experiments reached them. Further photographs from King’s helped, in particular Photo 51, a high-quality X-ray diffraction image taken by Raymond Gosling, a graduate student working under the supervision of Rosalind Franklin in May 1952. They showed more clearly the size of the molecules and the helical construction.
Watson pursued the idea of pair bondings that might fit the two-chain helical structure deduced by Crick. With the physical aid of cardboard cut-outs a possible pattern emerged, which they constructed in a model as a double helix – and everything fitted.
On February 28, 1953, Crick announced dramatically in The Eagle pub that they had found the secret of life. The formal scientific presentation of their results, with those of Wilkins and Franklin, appeared in Nature in April 1953. In 1962 Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”. Rosalind Franklin had died of cancer in 1958 and, as the prize is never given posthumously, was not able to share the credit that was her due.