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I learned in school that Watson and Crick discovered DNA, but in fact DNA was discovered many years before, and it turns out that it was the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick discovered (or proposed).

However, there was also a woman whose experiments contributed to this, although she did not receive the Nobel Prize.

Who was she, and what was her contribution?

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The woman you're thinking of is, notably, Rosalind Franklin. Her specialty was X-ray crystallography, and she worked with Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling in the early 1950s, continuing their previous work, to apply X-ray diffraction to produce images of DNA. Watson and Crick's models were built and confirmed by data gathered by Franklin, Wilkins and Gosling; the images allowed them to discount previous models and identify the double helix.

To say that Rosalind Franklin helped with the experiments is erroneous; she performed the experiments, along with her colleagues (and yes, other work on the problem of structure had been done by other groups around the same time). It would perhaps be more correct to say that Franklin performed the experiments and Watson and Crick interpreted them in more detail (as Franklin's group also came to the conclusion that a double helix was responsible for some of DNA's shape).

It's notable that the group Franklin was in was separate from Watson and Crick. She was at King's College, London, while the latter two were at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory.

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  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa — There are a couple of historical sources, and you are right that I should provide them. I'll do that in answer in the next few days, even though the accepted answer is correct in identifying Rosalind Franklin. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 19 at 8:00
  • $\begingroup$ @David I'd be really interested in seeing those -- if you can dig them up, that would be great. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Mar 22 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @njuffa — I have withdrawn my comment because it is partly incorrect. I have been spending some time reading the sources and keep having to revise what I have written. Most of the data is in the Annotated and Illustrated Anniversary edition of Watson's "The Double Helix", and the 1968 Nature article on Franklin by A. Klug (and its 1974 addendum). I have decided it is best to frame a new question when I have finished, which I hope will be within another week. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 27 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ See my comment to njuffa. You are correct in saying that Franklin and Gosling had worked out for themselves the overall structure of the helical aspects of the sugar-phosphate backbone by the time they were shown the Watson-Crick structure. And there is evidence Franklin appreciated that the two purines and the two pyrimidines must be "interchangeable" with each other to form the regular core of the structure. However she had not progressed to considering the base-pairing crucial to the biological significance of the structure. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 27 at 0:17

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