Project blog for the cataloguing and preservation of the papers of Maurice Wilkins and the King’s College London Department of Biophysics at the King's College London Archives. The project was undertaken at the College from May 2010-May 2011 with selected material from the archives later digitised as part of the Wellcome Trust Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics project.
The Randall Letters: The DNA Story at King's Revisited
The exciting aspect of our cataloguing project is the potential surprise and revelations that might occur when going through Maurice Wilkins' uncatalogued papers. Of particular interest is anything relating to DNA and in particular to the "DNA story" that followed. This topic has been well mined and publicised due to the buzz and controversy of Jim Watson's account, The Double Helix, first published in 1968. Whilst the book has been lauded for being the first personalised autobiographical book on a major scientific discovery the book offended many of the key protagonists, especially Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick. It was however, the treatment of Rosalind Franklin that created the biggest outrage and caused a chain of events that would eventually lead to this obscure scientist being lauded as one of the greatest female scientists of the century. This constant re-assessment of the DNA narrative had an affect on Maurice Wilkins who had to constantly redress the issue throughout his life.
One of the key trails of thought that Wilkins had after becoming aware only after reading in Robert Olby's book, The Path to the Double Helix (1974), was that Rosalind Franklin was misinformed of her position in her correspondence with Randall. The letters stated that she would be working with Gosling on the problem and it did not mention that Wilkins would still be working on the project. This was further implied by his non-appearance at the first meeting with Franklin due to him being on holiday in Wales. These events allowed Wilkins to gain some understanding of her later behaviour in telling him to leave the DNA work to her and to "get back to your microscopes!". He further speculated that this failure to notify Franklin of his continued interest in DNA was not an oversight but a deliberate attempt by Randall to get in on the DNA research. Wilkins justified this by the fact had a long term research interest in DNA dating from the forties and had initial given him the task of using X-ray diffraction on squid sperm heads. Whether this was the case is difficult to speculate but fortunately we have found in Maurice Wilkins's personal papers letters from Randall written in 1951 that support his assessment.In a letter dated on the 5th June 1951 ,whilst Wilkins's was in Naples, Randall wrote:
"I shall be in direct charge of any X-ray work on sperm: I planned this particular experiment a long time ago and would like to see it through. As you know, I tried unsuccessfully to get you and others interested in the optical properties of sperm and sperm nucleoprotein in 1948-49 and met with very indifferent response (and the wrong answer!)"
" I am inclined to think I have been far too generous of my time and mental effort in feeding the laboratory with apparatus, people, and ideas, and that it is time I took charge of more definitive programme myself"
The letter seems to corroborate Wilkins' view that Randall wanted to have greater authority and input in the DNA project and was frustrated by the slow progress being made.
Although this letter seems to confirm Maurice Wilkins' assessment about Randall's domination being detrimental to DNA research at King's. We are fortunate to also have extracts from Randall's own account in a letter to Wilkins from 1976:
Letter received from J T Randall to Maurice Wilkins, dated 5th January 1976
The letter is refreshing as it gives candid comments on several aspects that crop up regarding DNA work at King's such as the treatment of women, the atmosphere in the lab, relationship between Franklin and Wilkins. From the above, what stands out is that Randall emphasizes the point that it was Wilkins initial absence from the first meeting that proved fateful and if he were present his "standing in relation to DNA and your interest in it" would have been recognised.
Many more documents regarding the story of DNA are being unearthed in the papers of Maurice Wilkins, including letters and opinions from Francis Crick and Raymond Gosling along with Wilkins's own detailed research for his autobiography.