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.

The Double Helix, 60 years later

This photograph (by “Alkivar”) shows a reconstruction of the double helix model of DNA, constructed by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The metal plates are molecular models of bases (some of these plates are original). The model is located in the Science Museum, London (see also their photograph).

This model not only led to one of the greatest-ever breakthroughs in biology (see the original 1953 paper, as PDF), but also demonstrated that “playing with models” was an effective way of doing chemistry. The discovery built on X-ray crystallography work by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and Raymond Gosling (see their papers and the famous X-ray photograph produced by Gosling). Chemical investigations by Erwin Chargaff and others also produced essential information.

The breakthrough by Watson and Crick is commemorated by, among many other things, the Cambridge stained glass window shown below (located in the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College, photo by “Schutz”).