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A photo that changed the world

Maurice Wilkins, Photo 51 and Rosalind Franklin

Maurice Wilkins, the famous 'Photo 51' and Rosalind Franklin. Images by King's College London Archives.

On 25 April 1953, the renowned scientific journal Nature published an edition that would forever change the way we think about life and the nature of living creatures.

This historic edition revealed the secrets of the structure of the DNA molecule, describing the physical and chemical basis of how characteristics are passed down through the generations.

Out of the three papers published on the subject that day, two were written by scientists working at the Randall Institute at King’s College London, the first to bring together physicists, chemists and biologists to tackle some of the greatest scientific mysteries of the time.

Scientific pioneers

Two of these pioneering scientists were Dr Maurice Wilkins and the PhD student Ray Gosling, who began working on DNA at King’s in the summer of 1950.

Using a moistened sample of DNA fibres and an X-ray diffraction camera they had filled with hydrogen to reduce background scattering, they obtained the clearest pictures so far of the crystalline pattern of DNA. 

In the same year their colleague Alec Stokes suggested that the patterns obtained by their images showed that the molecule was helical in structure. Two years later, this was confirmed by the work of another King’s scientist.

King's DNA scientists Ray Gosling, Herbert Wilson, Maurice Wilkins and Alex Stokes reunited at King's in April 1993

Ray Gosling, Herbert Wilson and Maurice Wilkins at a reunion at King's in 1993. Image by King's College London Archives.

Photo 51

‘Photo 51’, taken by Dr Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling at King’s in 1952, can claim to be one of the world’s most important photographs, providing confirmation of the helical structure of DNA.

This photograph (together with their own deductions) enabled James Watson and Francis Crick of the University of Cambridge to build the first correct model of the DNA molecule.

Their paper A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid was published in the famous 1953 edition of Nature, alongside Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids by M H F Wilkins, A R Stokes & H R Wilson and Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate by R Franklin and R G Gosling. 

Maurice Wilkins and his colleague Herbert Wilson then went on to verify the Cambridge hypothesis about the structure of the molecule, and in 1962 Professor Wilkins received the Nobel Prize along with Crick and Watson for his many years of work on DNA. Sadly, Dr Franklin died from cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. 

The journey continues

For many scientists, the discovery of the structure of DNA was just the beginning. It paved the way for new research in areas such as gene therapy for inherited diseases, the sequencing of the human genome and biotechnology. 

King’s researchers continue to play a leading role in this area across a range of fields, from medicine, dentistry and the biological and physical sciences to psychiatry, medical law and ethics.

One recent example is the research led by Professor Paul Sharpe from King’s Dental Institute, which has advanced the development of a bioengineered tooth generated from a person’s own gum cells. 

Meanwhile, Professor Tim Spector and his team in the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology have demonstrated the genetic basis of a wide range of common diseases through their work on Epigenetics.

Read more about the history of DNA at King’s

Watch our 3-minute thinking video on Epigenetics

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