Raymond Gosling on Working on DNA with Rosalind Franklin
  Raymond Gosling     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2003

Well, because we got this wonderful pattern with lots of spots we quite clearly needed to analyze that pattern. And we’d have a good chance to get near to the structure of DNA. And Randall headhunted Rosalind. He knew that we needed—not a conventional crystallographer but someone with a more flexible approach. He heard of Rosalind because of the stuff she had done for the Coal Board [British Coal Utilisation Research Association] at the end of the war, the graphitization of carbon. And so she was already an established scientist. But he felt that she would be just the sort of person to work on this fiber diagram which wasn’t a conventional piece of crystallography. You’d have to develop the mathematics from first principles.

And he offered her a Turner and Newell Fellowship which in those days these fellowships were in the gift of the head of the department. Very feudal system, of course. And she came and it was agreed that she’d come and she’s have this fellowship for three years, and I first met her when—with Alexander Stokes, who was my day to day supervisor. The overall supervisor of every graduate student in the lab was the head of the department, J. T. Randall, but you had your day-to-day supervisor. And he introduced us to Rosalind and I was formally handed over as the serf in chains to Rosalind who would be now my day-to-day supervisor. So I had a very exciting time working with her. And this is a point of contention between me and Jim because Jim only saw her on one or two occasions and, I think, formed an entirely different opinion of her than I did because she was a very positive personality. She was an experimentalist so she didn’t dress up. He talks about women as though they should make the best of themselves in the laboratory. And yet—see the scientists here. They hardly made the best of themselves at this conference. They wore baggy trousers and socks with holes in it. So, I mean, Rosalind at least had a clean white coat on, but certainly she didn’t look like a glamour girl. But then the lab was full of women who looked like working women anyway. It was a wet lab. And we had lots of people doing biology in the biophysics lab.

I think it’s a great pity that Jim didn’t go to the opera with her because he would have seen an entirely different, a really assured society lady. She came from a family with a very good position. Her father was wealthy city banker. And she was—she had a social life. She had her own flat. She didn’t have digs in a corner of London that was cheap. She had a very nice flat. And I saw her occasionally when she was going to the opera. And that was a shiny Rosalind with eyes that sparkled. Certainly looked quite lovely.

And so I think he might have, had he known her socially instead of laboratory-wise and then hearsay, because you see, she and Maurice didn’t get on because J.T. Randall wrote to her, brought her over and said, “This structure “A” with all its spots is your problem.” He never said to her, “Look, my right hand man and I’ve known him before—from before the war we’ve worked together, he is Maurice Wilkins. And he is the prince at my court, and he is the over-arching genius on this DNA problem in the laboratory.” He didn’t say that apparently. I’ve often wondered. I would dearly love to know whether that was deliberate, whether that was dear old J.T. using the old Roman principle of divide and rule. Or whether it was simply that J.T. wanted, you know, he got good people. He just wanted other good people and make the work go faster. But I think he does admit or did admit because he’s “joined the majority” now as they say. But he did admit that perhaps he should have spelled out the chain of command.

But as far as Rosalind was concerned this was the problem. Difficult enough, we had to work out from first principles the mathematical way of dealing with these intensities which you had to measure very carefully. And then you could construct an atomic vector map from which you would be able to deduce the structure. Now we sloughed away at that. In those days, you didn’t have computers. You had to work out sine and cosine functions. And the only help we had were—they were predetermined on little paper strips, they were in big boxes of five hundred strips in each box called Beevers-Lipson strips. And I think that anybody who has worked on solving crystal structures using Beevers-Lipson strips have had the same recurring nightmare. It is that you have dropped one of the boxes and therefore they’ve all got out of order. And you’d shoot yourself because it would take forever to get them back in order. And I remember having those. But anyway, we’d done that. We got the patterns done. We were just sitting back to look for the structure and we get a call, come to Cambridge, the lads have built another model. Now they’d built one already which was the wrong around. So we go to Cambridge and there it is. And that was another Eureka! moment because like everybody says who first saw it. You’d look at it and you just felt, “Wow! It’s elegant.” It was the Greek test, elegant simplicity. And you just knew that it had to be right.

Of course, I think they had a bit of help because they knew the diameter from our internal MRC report. We’d already knew the structure “B” was helical and the diameter. But we came back then and looked at our cylindrical Patterson [function]. But the cat was out of the bag, Pandora’s Box had been opened. And you looked at it and it just screamed at you, double helix!

Raymond Gosling arrived at King’s lab in 1949 to work as a research student. Under the direction of Rosalind Franklin, he helped to perfect the technique of x-ray diffraction photography to obtain the A and B form images of DNA. Gosling met Watson when he arrived in Wilkins’s lab to review DNA diffraction images.

After completing his Ph.D., Gosling left King’s to teach physics at Queens’ College in Cambridge, at the University of St. Andrews, and at the University of the West Indies. He returned to the UK in 1967 to become professor and eventually emeritus professor in Physics Applied to Medicine at the Guy’s Hospital Medical School.

Raymond Gosling has dedicated much of his time researching the elasticity of the arterial system in order to develop tests to monitor one’s risk of stroke and heart attack.