Raymond Gosling: Not just an extraordinary envoy

Raymond Gosling was one of the key workers on DNA at King's during the period that became immortalised as the 'Race for the Double Helix'. His achievements have been eclipsed by the personality clash between Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.  Gosling’s own role as the rift developed became that of "an Envoy Extraordinary and diplomatically carrying the "sense" of messages between them".  However, there was much more to Gosling's role than acting as a courier between the two parties and the next three posts will be dedicated to his role at King's. 

In the papers of Maurice Wilkins and those of the department of Biophysics Department are correspondence, articles, a PhD thesis, photographs and the diffraction patterns that Gosling produced with both Wilkins and Franklin. All these images have been selected for digitisation and this post contains a few samples of the type of material the collection holds. 

 One of our oldest pieces is a postcard sent to Wilkins from Gosling while on his honeymoon in 1950. His honeymoon consisted of touring Italy on his motorbike. Recently, I discovered that Wilkins, too, used to get lifts on the back of his motorbike after late nights working on x-ray diffraction experiments in the summer of 1950. Wilkins described this as “rather scary” but “enjoyed his hilarious time together” with Gosling. 

(ref: K/PP178/3/12)


The experimental biophysics work that King's has become known for in the solving of the structure of DNA was X-ray diffraction and Gosling's importance is undisputed. Gosling was the first to apply x-ray diffraction techniques on nucleic material at King's with the study of ram sperm heads in 1950. Later that year Gosling moved on to looking at DNA specimens and Wilkins brought him the calf thymus DNA donated by Rudolf Signer. The two began to collaborate and managed through innovation and some luck to produce a crystalline multi-fibre diffraction pattern of DNA that proved to be the breakthrough required to show that the structure of DNA was a feasible proposition. Soon afterwards new equipment and an expert crystallographer, in the shape of Rosalind Franklin, were brought in and Gosling was handed over to be Franklin's assistant. Gosling and Franklin made great strides and soon discovered through Franklin's control of the humidity levels that DNA occurred in two phases, called Structure A and B, and that this change could be reversible. This observation was followed up with further deductions based on the effect of water content on both structures. Whilst the rift within the lab affected joint efforts, Gosling and Franklin did go on to produce a three dimensional Patterson function of Structure A DNA, the data from which helped to prove the correctness of the Watson-Crick model.

Early calf thymus x-ray diffraction pattern produced by Raymond Gosling, 1950 (ref: K/PP178/5/1/1 Copyright: King's College London)

X-ray diffraction patterns of Structure A and B from Franklin & Gosling's article in Acta  Crystallographica,The  Structure  of  Sodium   Thymonucleate  Fibres. I.
The  Influence  of Water  Content', 1953 (ref: K/PP178/2/28 copyright: Please contact King's College London Archive Service)

  In the late 1970s, at the request of Wilkins, Gosling produced a recollection of his time at King's to allow Wilkins to reconstruct a popular account of DNA work at King's to counteract claims made by the recently published biography of Rosalind Franklin, by Anne Sayre (1975).

Some Recollections of DNA Studies in the Biophysics Laboratories at King's College. (ref: KPP178/5/6)

He described the atmosphere at King's as "friendly and positive". The interdisciplinary subject of biophysics was excitingly innovative and Gosling describes being 'exhilarated' by the prospect of investigating the 'dynamics of the single cell'

Some Recollections of DNA Studies in the Biophysics Laboratories at King's College.(ref: KPP178/5/6)

For Gosling, this period at King's could be broken down into four stages: firstly, the preliminary work around DNA before x-ray diffraction studies began and culminated in the first good crystalline pattern; secondly, the arrival of Franklin and the observation of two phases , Structure A and B, in DNA; thirdly, the interpretation of water content within the specimen and finally the ‘schism’ between Franklin and Wilkins.  

 In his concluding remarks, Gosling notes that it was his belief that Franklin never wholeheartedly believed that the structure was other than helical, despite giving that impression to Wilkins and Stokes. Perhaps the most telling observation is the following:

"If only Rosalind and Maurice had not been such shy people they might have been able to cooperate well in spite of their different views on how to set about solving the structure of DNA". 

You can read the full account of Raymond Gosling's reflections on his DNA work at King's via the Wellcome Digital Library- here

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