Self-effacing scientist who took the vital X-ray photograph that unlocked the puzzle of DNA
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
Professor Raymond Gosling, who has died aged 88, was the often overlooked fifth person in the story of the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA - the key to the secret of life.
The names most commonly associated with the discovery are Francis Crick and James Watson of Cambridge University, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with Maurice Wilkins of King's College London. But other researchers provided the crucial data that Crick and Watson needed to make the imaginative leap to complete the big picture.
Later attention would focus on Wilkins's colleague at King's, Rosalind Franklin, who suffered as a result of the male chauvinism of the 1950s and died too soon to win a share in the Nobel Prize. It was her skill in X-ray crystallography that led to "Photograph 51", the image that gave Crick and Watson the decisive clue to the dimensions and angles of the DNA molecule that led the Cambridge pair to make their famous model of the double helix.
There is no doubt that Rosalind Franklin's role was important, but her posthumously acquired status as a feminist icon obscured the fact that it was actually Gosling who took the vital X-ray photographs which proved to be the key in unlocking the puzzle.
A graduate student at the time, it was he, supervised by Maurice Wilkins, who in 1950 first took an X-ray photograph of a DNA fibre - the picture that inspired the young James Watson when he saw it presented by Wilkins at a conference in Naples. The more famous "Photograph 51" was taken in May 1952, and is usually described as Rosalind Franklin's. That, too, however, was taken by Gosling.
When Crick and Watson published their famous paper describing the structure of DNA in the April 25, 1953 edition of Nature, they did not include any experimental data and did not fully credit the work of the King's College scientists, although the King's team did publish their data in the form of two articles in the same issue, one by Wilkins, Alec Stokes and Herbert Wilson and the other, describing the X-ray diffraction work they had carried out, by Rosalind Franklin and Gosling.
Self-effacing to a fault, Gosling never expressed any resentment at the way his role had been overlooked and, when asked, tended to deflect any credit to John Randall, the head of the King's laboratory whose belief that DNA must be the agent of genetic inheritance - and his consequent determination to discover its structure - had guided all their researches.
Raymond Gosling was born on July 15, 1926 in Wembley. His father was an artist and furniture draughtsman, his mother an opera singer. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but Raymond was more interested in science and, after leaving Preston Manor grammar school, went up to University College London to read physics. After graduating in 1947, Gosling intended to go on with graduate studies at UCL, but found himself tempted by developments at King's, where John Randall had become Wheatstone Professor of Physics.
"The people in the university and a few other establishments tended to make fun of Randall's approach, his claim that you would need to have different disciplines working together, and they called it 'Randall's Circus'," Gosling recalled. "Now, that's what attracted me in the first place. I heard about this strange bald-headed little man with a Napoleonic complex who was running the circus in biophysics, and it sounded wonderful to me!"
Randall suggested that Gosling gain experience in biology and zoology before joining his DNA team, so he studied at night while working as a hospital physicist, after which Randall assigned him to work on X-ray diffraction with Maurice Wilkins, analysing DNA samples.
Their first attempts to photograph filaments of DNA (which Wilkins had prepared by wrapping fibres round a paper clip and holding them in place with small blobs of glue) proved unsatisfactory. In an attempt to keep the camera airtight so that the DNA could be photographed in an atmosphere of pure hydrogen, Gosling experimented with a variety of sealants, but could find no way of dealing with the heavy brass collimator tube (a device that narrows a beam of particles or waves).
When he showed Wilkins how far he had got, he was surprised and somewhat disconcerted when Wilkins, a rather shy man, fished a packet of Durex out of his pocket and said "here, little Raymond, put this round the collimator."
The condom did the trick, and Gosling had a remarkable stroke of luck when humidity absorbed by the DNA fibres unexpectedly crystallised, enabling him to produce the photograph featuring the telltale diffraction spots that so excited James Watson. "I can still remember vividly the excitement of showing this thing to Wilkins and drinking his sherry by the glass… by the gulpful," he recalled.
But Gosling was also an innocent agent in the breakdown of communication between Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, who arrived at King's in 1951 when Wilkins was on holiday. By the etiquette of British science, no one other than Wilkins and his team was supposed to work on the problem of DNA structure, but, as Gosling recalled: "Randall actually wrote to Rosalind saying that she would be asked to direct the X-ray crystallographic work on the DNA material, and I didn't know that he'd done that." Neither, apparently, did Wilkins, who resented the intrusion. Worse still, Randall removed Gosling from Wilkins and assigned him to Rosalind Franklin as her technician and student.
Gosling believed that the tensions that arose between the two scientists were probably deliberate on Randall's part: "He thought it would make them competitive and improve their work."
Gosling found himself caught in the middle: "It was terrible, terrible. I spent my life going from one to the other, giving messages, trying to play the peacemaker."
Eventually, the dispute resulted in Randall suggesting to Rosalind Franklin that she had better leave, even though the DNA work was not yet complete - although he fixed her up with a job at Birkbeck College, London. Owing to her enforced move, Gosling ended up writing his PhD thesis away from King's, under her guidance.
Gosling hoped to continue his work with DNA, convinced that it would only be a year or so before scientists began using the breakthrough to find ways of curing cancer, but the hope proved vain and he drifted away from the field.
He became a physics lecturer at Queen's College, the University of St Andrews, and later at the University of the West Indies.
Returning to England in 1967, he joined Guy's Hospital medical school, where he developed devices for the study and diagnosis of atherosclerosis and became Professor in Physics Applied to Medicine in 1984.
In 1965, Gosling married his wife, Mary. They had four sons. Gosling always saw life through the prism of science: his children were instructed to use a "mono molecular structure" of toothpaste (ie not too much) when brushing their teeth, and a laboratory was set up in the garage.
For many years he took his family on an annual summer holiday to a nudist colony in the dunes outside Bordeaux, where he was once spotted discussing the finer points of rowing with an (unnamed) house master at Radley and his wife, all of them naked.
Professor Raymond Gosling died last Monday, May 18. His wife and sons survive him.