Don Caspar on Rosalind Franklin
  Don Caspar     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jan 2001

First of all I had great admiration for her [Rosalind Franklin]. And, you know, I was very, very fond of her…I think I’ll just mention some of the memorable events, that there was the CIBA meeting in 1956, where Rosalind presented the sort of definitive evidence about the symmetry of tobacco mosaic virus and the location of the RNA. And then after that it was I think just a couple of weeks later that there was a meeting in Madrid on what really I guess, the first sort of crystallographic meeting on—macromolecular biological structures. I knew Rosalind well, I knew Maurice Wilkins well. And Maurice had, I think more of an antipathy to Rosalind even than Jim did. I think Rosalind had a—she had, I think no really negative or antagonistic feelings towards anybody. I think with Maurice Wilkins that he was a bit amateurish about a lot of things that he did and I mean, Rosalind was a—I mean, she was brilliant and knowledgeable and very well focused. There was another incidence that was mentioned in his account. The run-in that Rosalind had with [Sir W.] Slater (??) who was Head of the Agricultural—he was sort of Vice-Chancellor of Agricultural Research Council and Victor Rothschild was the sort of the nominal head and Slater had treated Rosalind in a most deprecating manner that, you know, she was concerned about getting support for some more equipment. Actually, she wanted to get some instrumentation that was similar to what I had used at Yale for my studies. In any case—Jim described himself as sympathizing with Rothschild, you know, having to deal with this obsessive woman, whereas he was actually being quite helpful in terms of trying to encourage, sort of, getting support for her to carry on her work. But the meeting in Madrid—again it was sort of it kept carrying on from the science that was reported at the this CIBA Meeting that Jim was off to Cairo to visit Jeffrey Wyman (??) at the time. And one of the things that I remember sort of vividly from that meeting was that Maurice Wilkins was always making great effort never to be in the same place as Rosalind at the same time. So that was Easter, early April, and then in June there was the Gordon Conference and Rosalind and Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick were there at that occasion.

Actually I have a photograph—I don’t have that one with me, of that Gordon Conference with Rosalind actually sitting right next to Maurice Wilkins in the middle of the photograph. But Rosalind went to Berkeley to visit [W.M.] Stanley’s lab after the Gordon Conference after that I was in Colorado, my father had just died. And Rosalind stopped to visit us on the way back and this was, you know, just in time for symptoms of her cancer had developed. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. But the next summer I was back in Cambridge and my mother was there. My mother stayed with Rosalind in London and we met again in Geneva and had gone off for sort of a brief tour in the Alps. Rosalind was a very keen alpinist.

…I think she had a real sense of humor. She was a personally, very delightful person to be with. She had a lot of interests, you know, outside of her science that—I’m just trying to think what to tell you about Rosalind that—

… the businesses with King’s [College in Cambridge] was over and she was working on tobacco mosaic virus, and that was her focus. (Long pause) In 1957 when she was up to Cambridge fairly frequently and she was then spending more time with Francis and Odile [Crick] that she had planned to come to the United States in the summer of ’58 and I had a letter from her—actually it was a month to the day before she died—that the cancer was in remission at the point and she was still optimistic about the prospects of coming to the United States. And we were planning to go out to the West Coast together and needless to say it was just a month before she died. So the plan was that she was going to be coming for this phytopatology conference in Indiana at Bloomington and after Rosalind died in April ’56 the organizers asked me to fill in in her place, I arranged to write the paper posthumously with Aaron Klug so I went to London in the summer of ’58 and… The first time I met Rosalind, 1955, I guess it was August of ‘55, she had a—Bernal had gotten these two old houses, 21 and 22 Torrington Square for laboratory. There were eighteenth century terrace houses, the ones on either side had been bombed and there were just these two houses left. Rosalind had an office up in the attic on the top floor of—I guess it was 21 Torrington Square. And we had been chatting in her office and were going to go off for dinner and before we left Rosalind took out her umbrella and opened it up and put it on top of her desk. I as a bit puzzled. “What that for?” She said “The roof leaks, the last week the rain had come in and soaked all her papers.”

Then she moved down to a more substantial office. This was the place where I had set fire to my jacket in 1956, and then when I was there in ‘58 I was working in Rosalind’s office and her office was directly under Bernal’s bedroom. You know, Bernal was a sort of radical in a number of directions in the 1930s, we both scientifically, socially, and sexually; he was a very dashing figure and was involved with a great many different women. I would work. I happen to be very nocturnal so I would hear Bernal sort of tramping up the stairs in the middle of the night with some woman and then his bed was directly over Rosalind’s desk. Aaron [Klug] told me that Rosalind would hear the mornings after that there were often, I gather, sort of somewhat voluble confrontations in the morning.

Donald Caspar, structural biologist and crystallographer, is a professor emeritus of Biological Sciences at the Institute of Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida and is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Born on January 8, 1927, he received his B.A. in Physics from Cornell University in 1950, and his his Ph.D. in Biophysics from Yale University in 1955. Caspar is interested in protein adaptability, virus assembly, protein plasticity and x-ray diffraction. He currently researches the mechanics of protein movements by executing structural studies.

He has attended many symposia at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, starting in 1961, and worked with Watson at Caltech and Harvard. He is a member of the National Academy of Science. Dr. Casper is a long-time friend and colleague of Dr. James D. Watson as well as many of the early pioneers in molecular biology, including Dr. Rosalind Franklin.