In 1962 James Watson (1928-today), Francis Crick (1916-2004), and Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004) jointly received the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology for their determination in 1953 of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Because the Nobel Prize can be awarded only to the living, Wilkins's colleague Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), who died of cancer at the age of 37, could not be honored.
The background for the work of the four scientists was formed by several scientific breakthroughs: the progress made by X-ray crystallographers in studying organic macromolecules; the growing evidence supplied by geneticists that it was DNA, not protein, in chromosomes that was responsible for heredity; Erwin Chargaff's experimental finding that there are equal numbers of A and T bases and of G and C bases in DNA; and Linus Pauling's discovery that the molecules of some proteins have helical shapes--arrived at through the use of atomic models and a keen knowledge of the possible disposition of various atoms.
Of the four DNA researchers only Rosalind Franklin had any degrees in chemistry. The daughter of a prominent London banking family, where all children--girls and boys--were encouraged to develop their individual aptitudes, she held her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cambridge University. During World War II she gave up her research scholarship to contribute to the war effort at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where she performed fundamental investigations on the properties of coal and graphite. After the war she joined the Laboratoire Centrale des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris, where she was introduced to the technique of X-ray crystallography and rapidly became a respected authority in this field. In 1951 she returned to England to King's College, London, where her charge was to upgrade the X-ray crystallographic laboratory there for work with DNA.
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