Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) © Getty Images

Understanding DNA: Five key scientists who unravelled the helix

The discovery of DNA is one of our greatest scientific achievements – these are scientists who led to its discovery.

1

William Astbury

(1898-1961)

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Astbury was a British molecular biologist and physicist who spent much of his working life in Leeds.

His work focused originally on the structure of proteins in textiles but, along with his PhD student Florence Bell, he took the first X-ray photographs of DNA in 1937.

Read more about the discovery of DNA:

2

Rosalind Franklin

(1920-1958)

Franklin (pictured above) was born in London to a rich Jewish family.

The X-ray crystallographer and biophysicist provided much of the experimental evidence for the structure of DNA, in the form of Photo 51 (below), before switching her focus to viruses at Birkbeck College. She died of cancer at the age of 38.

Photo 51 © KCL

 

3

Maurice Wilkins

(1916-2004)

Dr. Maurice Wilkins standing by the three-dimensional model of a molecule © Getty Images

Wilkins was a British physicist and molecular biologist who was born in New Zealand. As well as his DNA research, he worked in fields such as radar and microscopy. He remained at King’s College until his retirement in 1981.


4

Francis Crick

(1916-2004)

Crick was born near Northampton to the owner of a shoe factory and became a British biophysicist and molecular biologist. After co-discovering the structure of DNA, he went on to determine how DNA codes for proteins, before venturing into neuroscience.

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick © Getty Images
5

James Watson

(1928- )

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Watson is an American geneticist and molecular biologist born in Chicago, who gained co-discovering DNA’s structure in Cambridge in 1953, he worked at Harvard University and then the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory until he retired in 2007.