Raymond Gosling, Forgotten Hero of DNA

Raymond Gosling in later life (photograph by his wife)

Raymond Gosling (15 July 1926 – 18 May 2015) is the forgotten hero of DNA. As a lowly PhD student at King’s College, London, he took the famous “Photo 51” of DNA, but is not often given credit for doing so, perhaps because he was caught up in a story that was bigger than he was. A timeline helps elucidate the saga:

1949: Gosling joins King’s College as a PhD student under Maurice Wilkins.

1950: Gosling obtains the first clear X-ray image of DNA, using techniques developed with Wilkins. Wilkins presents this image at a conference in Naples in May, where it excites James Watson.

1951: Rosalind Franklin joins King’s College, taking over much of Wilkins’ work, which causes considerable friction. Gosling is told to transfer from supervision by Wilkins to supervision by Franklin.

November 1951: Franklin gives a talk suggesting that DNA is a helix (see her notes). Watson attends the talk, and later he and Francis Crick reveal a helical DNA model that turns out to be wrong.

May 1952: Gosling takes the famous “Photo 51” of DNA’s “B” form (below – and hear his account here), but Franklin requires him to work with her on the “A” form, which is much more difficult to analyse.

Raymond Gosling’s famous “Photo 51” of DNA’s “B” form, taken in May 1952

June 1952: Franklin begins making arrangements to leaves King’s College London for Birckbeck College.

July 1952: Based on the “A” form studies, Franklin decides that DNA is not a helix, and produces a mock death notice for the concept (below).

Rosalind Franklin’s mock obituary for the DNA helix idea, July 1952

January 1953: At Franklin’s suggestion, Gosling gives his “Photo 51” to Wilkins, who shows it to Watson a few days later. Watson immediately realises that it very clearly reveals a helix.

February 1953: Linus Pauling in the USA publishes a three-chain helical structure for DNA. This is a massive blunder – Pauling had forgotten that DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid – but it puts pressure on Watson and Crick to discover the DNA structure before Pauling fixes his mistake.

March 1953: Watson and Crick finish building their final DNA model, which integrates knowledge of the helix with their idea for AT and GC base pair bonding – and a great deal of effort in trying to make metal scale models of the molecules fit together in accordance with the laws of chemistry. That same month, Franklin leaves King’s College London, but continues to co-author papers with Gosling.

The structure of DNA

April 1953: Three DNA papers appear in Nature (without peer review!):

All three teams acknowledge each other – Watson and Crick acknowledge the unpublished work of the others; Wilkins and Stokes acknowledge discussions with the others; Franklin and Gosling acknowledge discussions with Wilkins, Stokes, and Crick.

1954: Gosling completes his thesis.

April 1958: Franklin dies of ovarian cancer. In the last years of her life, she, Watson, and Crick were close friends, and she recuperated from medical treatment at the home of Crick and his wife.

1962: Crick, Watson, and Wilkins share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Franklin is ineligible because Nobel Prizes cannot be posthumous, but Gosling gets nothing either. He is not the first PhD student to have their contribution go unrecognised. Or the last.

Oil on troubled waters

Somewhere around 1770, Benjamin Franklin conducted an interesting experiment at Clapham Common in London (photo below by Ewan Munro):

According to Franklin’s Memoirs, “At length being at Clapham, where there is, on the common, a large pond, which I observed to be one day to be very rough with the wind, I fetched out a cruet of oil, and dropt a little of it on the water. I saw it spread itself with surprising swiftness upon the surface; but the effect of smoothing the waves was not produced: for I had applied it first on the leeward side of the pond, where the waves were largest, and the wind drove my oil back upon the shore. I then went to the windward side, where they [the waves] began to form; and there the oil, though not more than a tea-spoonful, produced an instant calm over a space several yards square, which spread amazingly, and extended itself gradually till it reached the lee side, making all that quarter of the pond, perhaps half an acre, as smooth as a looking glass.

After this, I contrived to take with me, whenever I went into the country, a little oil in the upper hollow joint of my bamboo cane, with which I might repeat the experiment as opportunity should offer, and found it constantly to succeed.

In these experiments, one circumstance struck me with particular surprise. This was the sudden, wide, and forcible spreading of a drop of oil on the face of the water, which I do not know that anybody has hitherto considered. If a drop of oil is put on a polished marble table, or on a looking glass that lies horizontally, the drop remains in place, spreading very little. But when put on water, it spreads instantly many feet round, becoming so thin as to produce the prismatic colors, for a considerable space, and beyond them so much thinner as to be invisible, except in its effect of smoothing the waves at a much greater distance.

A century later, Lord Rayleigh went on to calculate the thickness of such oil layers (which, as they spread, become transparent and monomolecular) as 1.63 nm, which must therefore be (roughly) the length of an oil molecule. See also the blog post here.

Oil on the water (photo: “alicepopkorn”)