Sixty years ago today a paper describing the structure of DNA was published in Nature. Photo 51 was important to Watson and Crick’s discovery, and is surely the most famous x-ray crystallography image in the world. But what do its shadows and cruciform spots actually mean? Katherine Nightingale met King’s College London Professor of Molecular Biophysics Brian Sutton for an explanation of both the image and its history.
When and where was Photo 51 taken?
It was taken in May 1952 by Rosalind Franklin and her PhD student Raymond Gosling at the MRC Biophysics Unit. Franklin, a biophysicist, had been recruited to the unit to work on the structure of DNA. The unit was then part of the King’s College campus on the Strand in London and was run by Sir John Randall, who had turned some of the university’s physics department over to studying biological problems. More literally, it was taken three floors down in the basement underneath the chemistry laboratories, below the level of the Thames.
The MRC Biophysics Unit moved to Drury Lane in the 1960s and later became the Randall Institute. I now work in its most recent incarnation — the Randall Division of Cell and Molecular Biophysics. So photo 51 is doubly significant for me: I’m an x-ray crystallographer so it’s part of my heritage in that respect, but all of us in the division are proud of this link with the work in the 1950s. Read more