70 Years Ago, Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s DNA Milestone Reflected Progressive Research Culture at CMS
Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s work more than 70 years ago at King’s College in London (September 1951–May 1953) to create and analyze Photograph 51 unlocked mysteries behind the double-helix structure of DNA. Across the Atlantic in the middle of the United States, research at Chicago Medical School (CMS) aimed to unravel biological processes affecting patient health.
In the photo above, a laboratory technician in the CMS Biochemistry laboratory on the first floor of the 710 S. Wolcott building investigates chemical changes in kidney disease in 1951. The study was both biochemical and clinical in nature, as it also involved patient populations from Cook County and Mount Sinai hospitals. The photo provides a window into the working spaces of those advancing science in the early 1950s, and allows for reflection on the similarities and differences of today’s research environment.
A philosophy of encouraging research was part of CMS, “in order to advance the boundaries of knowledge, and because it is believed that teaching without research is likely to be sterile.”
As Dr. Franklin and Raymond Gosling toiled to modify and test the camera they would employ for X-ray crystallography in London, in Chicago, CMS Research Fellow Melvin Goldzband, MD ’55, applied creativity to construct an apparatus for a study with Dr. George Clark, associate professor of neuro-anatomy, to employ critical fusion frequency to gain understanding of retina function and advance the diagnosis of brain injuries and visual disorders.
By October 1952, Dr. Franklin was deeply immersed in X-ray crystallography of the “B” form of DNA, a technique that included long exposures to create an image. Over the same period of time, Dr. A. Robert Goldfarb, professor in the CMS Department of Biochemistry, partnered with several faculty members to use radioactive isotopes to investigate cancer growth on the skin, kidney function, the flow of blood through the heart and lungs, and the potency of inhibitors and stimulants of thyroid function. Dr. Goldfarb employed the known techniques and precautions of working with radioactive material.
The articles within the CMS News bimonthly newsletter published parallel to Dr. Franklin’s 20 months at King’s College contain many mentions of CMS faculty, staff and alumni drawing on their research activities to present to professional and community organizations and conferences; sharing laboratory space at CMS with international visitors; and rising to leadership on committees of the American Medical Association and other organizations. The articles paint a landscape of diverse research activities, including studies in cancer, diabetes, hemolytic anemia and environmental health effects. A philosophy of encouraging research was part of CMS, “in order to advance the boundaries of knowledge, and because it is believed that teaching without research is likely to be sterile,” as stated in the December 1951 CMS News.
The newsletters indicate CMS raised more than $243,000 in contributions and laboratory equipment for research efforts during this period ($2.7 million in today’s dollars). Several of the grants were from the U.S. Public Health Service, which established the Research Grants Office in January 1946 to administer the Office of Scientific Research and Development projects transferred at the end of World War II, and to operate a program of extramural research grants and fellowship awards. This support and accounting of activities illustrates the important place of the research both within the school and the greater scientific community.
Kelly Reiss is director of the Rosalind Franklin University Archives and the Feet First Exhibition.