Genesis Sparks

Rosalind Franklin grew up in a politically active family. Her parents helped fund homes for Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazi regime in Germany. She was an outstanding student who excelled in STEM subjects as well as languages and sports. She received a Ph.D. from Cambridge with an emphasis in Chemistry.

Rosalind had a special interest in x-ray crystallography which she could use to determine the structure of a crystal. She was awarded a three-year fellowship to work at King’s College in London. While there, she was provided a graduate assistant, Raymond Gosling, to study DNA.

The team of Franklin and Gosling made an unexpected discovery. There were actually two forms of DNA which they labeled A and B. One photograph of theirs (Photo 51) was so distinctive it became the basis for the structure of DNA.

A colleague of Franklin and Gosling provided Photo 51 to a competitor, James Watson. Watson and his colleague went on to get credit for discovering the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick subsequently received the Nobel Prize for their work. When they published an article revealing the structure of DNA, the only mention of the contribution made by Franklin and Gosling was in a footnote. Franklin never did complain of not receiving the recognition she deserved because it was against her upbringing.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s contributions were never fully recognized in her lifetime. She died at the age of 37. Another colleague of hers did win a Nobel Prize for the work that Franklin helped him initiate. She would have likely received a Nobel Prize for her contributions to this work, but the Nobel committee does not recognize efforts posthumously.

We often think of innovation as the work of an individual or a small team of individuals. What is often ignored is the contributions of many others who provided the groundwork for the innovations. Franklin and Gosling’s Photo 51 has become the basis of untold Nobel Prizes and innovations affecting all of us. But little recognition is given to the “genesis spark” that has spurred so much innovation.

How might innovation change if it became more of a collaboration than a competition? Does competition drive innovation or retard it? Might we think of innovation as an iceberg? The part of the iceberg that we see above water would be those who receive recognition for the innovation. The sub-surface part of the iceberg would be all those hidden heroes who made the discoveries that were essential to the innovation. How might we recognize the contributions of these essential efforts?

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“My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race.” – Thomas Watson when he saw Photo 51

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