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The centenary of the discovery of x-ray crystallography

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You may not have noticed, but a couple of years ago the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2014 to be the International Year of Crystallography. It did so because x-ray crystallography is 100 years old this year and yet remains relatively unknown to the general public — despite being essential to many fields of science, including pharmaceutical research.

The birth of x-ray crystallography in 1914 is credited mainly to the British father and son team of William and Lawrence Bragg. In 1915, when Bragg junior was still only 25 years old, they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries. (As an aside, may I say that as a teenager I attended a fascinating Royal Society schools lecture by Sir Lawrence that helped steer me towards a science-based career.)

Sadly, despite being the birthplace of x-ray crystallography, the UK seems to have given little attention to its centenary. One event that has arrived late in the year is an exhibition at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where a ground floor corridor currently features 37 images by photographer Max Alexander portraying crystallographers and their work. Unfortunately, the display is normally only accessible to those who have bought a ticket for an event in the hall — although if you happen to be in the area on Saturday 29 November you can visit it free between 10am and 4pm.

Whenever I read about x-ray crystallography I am reminded of the sad fate of Rosalind Franklin, an outstanding but little-recognised crystallographer whose work was vital to the elucidation of the structure of DNA. It was Franklin’s meticulous research at King’s College London that first suggested a double-helical backbone for this complex molecule. But before she could complete her painstaking studies, her colleague Maurice Wilkins leaked her x-ray diffraction images to Cambridge University’s James Watson. This disclosure confirmed the three-dimensional structure that Watson and Francis Crick had theorised and allowed them to publish their famous 1953 paper that postulated a double-helix structure for DNA. Outrageously, the paper hardly acknowledged their debt to Franklin’s essential contribution.

Rosalind Franklin deserved a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that Crick and Watson received in 1962. But sadly she had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 and therefore could not be considered, since Nobel prizes are never awarded posthumously. Instead, her nemesis Maurice Wilkins became the award’s third recipient.

Francis Crick was honest enough to state later that Franklin deserved the Nobel prize for her vital role in elucidating the structure of DNA, but Watson and Wilkins — to their shame — continued to play down her contribution.

In my view, Rosalind Franklin deserves some significant form of recognition as the International Year of Crystallography draws to a close.  

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