Revised plaque acknowledges Franklin’s DNA role

Revised blue plaque which acknowledges Rosalind Franklin

A blue plaque which commemorates the celebration by Francis Crick and James Watson of the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 has been updated to acknowledge the contribution of Newnham alumna Rosalind Franklin. 

The plaque was first installed in 2003, on the Eagle pub where they celebrated, but made no mention of Rosalind Franklin, whose research had helped them to work out DNA structure.  

Penny Heath, the chair of the Cambridge Blue Plaque Committee, said: “In recent years there have been efforts to increase awareness of the role played by important female scientists, whose work has sometimes been overshadowed. Rosalind Franklin was one: the plaque had even been graffitied with ‘+ Franklin’.”  

Local charity, Cambridge Past, Present and Future replaced the plaque when it deteriorated and took the opportunity to acknowledge the work of Franklin, Maurice Wilkins and others, as well as that of Crick and Watson. 

‘The secret of life’ 

For decades the Eagle was the local pub for scientists from the nearby Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was there in 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 Cavendish Laboratory was famous for pioneering work on the structure of the atom. Francis Crick joined the Medical Research Council Unit there in 1949, and was joined by James Watson. At the time, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) was one of the key subjects for biologists looking at molecular structure, as it was realised the structure of DNA was crucial to how living cells replicated.  

The work of Linus Pauling in America and of Maurice Wilkins at King’s College London was moving towards identifying the precise structure: possibly a helix, but what were the components, how did they fit together and how could the form reproduce itself? 

Drawing together the clues from published research, Crick and Watson made contact with Wilkins, and the work being done by Rosalind Franklin and her research student Raymond Gosling.

Franklin, a Newnham College graduate, concentrated 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 until information from other experiments reached them, and they returned to considering how the chemicals in DNA adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosinecould fit the information they had. Further photographs from King’s helped, in particular a high-quality X-ray diffraction image taken by Raymond Gosling, a graduate student working under the supervision of 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. Everything fitted. 

On 28 February 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. 

Discovery recognised

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.  

Their work initiated a flood of further research round the globe to read in detail the secrets of the code of life. 

The Eagle is owned by Corpus Christi College who have been supportive in replacing the Blue Plaque. Professor Christopher Howe, Deputy Master of Corpus, said: “The College is delighted that the new plaque gives better recognition to those other pioneering scientists whose work was essential to this important discovery. Our knowledge of the structure of DNA has transformed biology over the intervening seventy years.”