The Greatest Trade Secret Heist the World Has Ever Known?

By Steve McDaniel, Technology Litigators | April 1, 2013

So, can a trade secret thief benefit from his heist and walk away totally unscathed? Oh yeah. Can the scoundrel make a ton of money from it right under the nose of the rightful owner? You bet. Does society sometimes even reward the rogue for his sticky fingers? Sure.

Take the peculiar case of Dr. Franklin, the undisputed rightful owner of what might be the greatest chemical trade secret of all time. Don’t know Dr. Franklin? Dr. R. Franklin? Dr. Rosalind Elsie Franklin of King’s College London (known fondly to the thieves, her trusted colleagues, as “Rosy”)? Still doesn’t ring a bell? OK, let’s go at this from a different angle.

The things you gotta prove to show some one is guilty of trade secret theft generally are:

1. The plaintiff owned a trade secret.
2. The defendant used or disclosed the trade secret, in violation of a confidential or contractual relationship with the plaintiff, or after acquiring the trade secret by improper means, or after acquiring the trade secret from a third party with notice that the disclosure was improper.
3. The plaintiff suffered injury, such injury, by way of example, including value lost by plaintiff or value gained by defendant.

With that in mind, ever heard of Watson and Crick? Yep, THAT James Watson and Francis Crick - of Nobel Laureate fame AND fortune.

Rosalind Franklin was a very good x-ray diffraction researcher, and was hired to do that by King’s College in England. She was already well-known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of carbon-based molecules like coal before arriving, so she continued her trade at King’s College by focusing her ample skill set at unraveling the structure of DNA. There were a bunch of guys in the U.K. working on the structure of DNA, including Linus Pauling – a Nobel laureate known for his x-ray diffraction model of collagen (the building block protein of skin). This “old boy’s club” also included Watson and Crick. It also included Maurice Wilkins, a colleague of Franklin at King’s College, who had a thinly-veiled, and well-known, turf war going on with her.

Franklin started working at King’s College in early 1951. By January 1953, she had assembled her data and had written three manuscripts, two of which included a double helical DNA backbone. Had that been the whole of it, there is little doubt that she would have been proclaimed as one of the discoverers of the DNA structure, with all the acclaim, money and influence that would accord.

As chronicled in Watson’s The Double Helix (which made him tons of money), on a chilly English day in January of 1953, he travelled to King’s College from Cambridge carrying a preprint of Linus Pauling’s incorrect proposal for DNA structure. Wilkins was not in his office, so Watson went to Dr. Franklin’s lab and proposed to her that they should all collaborate and beat Pauling to the punch before the old man figured out what was happening. Franklin rankled when Watson suggested she did not know how to interpret her own data – she had after all three manuscripts proving her point very authoritatively and cautiously did not share this with him. With that spectacular failure in diplomacy at his back, Watson made a hasty return to Wilkins’ office. Wilkins and Watson then conspired to change the course of science history by unceremoniously stealing Franklin’s data. Without Franklin’s permission or knowledge, Wilkins showed Watson Franklin’s famous photograph 51. Watson, in turn, showed Wilkins a prepublication manuscript by Pauling. It was Franklin’s photo 51 that gave the Cambridge duo critical insight into the DNA structure, and showed them where Pauling’s paper and their own first incorrect model were fatally flawed. Watson copied down all Franklin’s data before returning to Cambridge and sharing the stolen information with Crick.

By the end of February 1953, Watson and Crick knew they had solved the problem, with Crick proclaiming (in the local brewhouse) that they had “found the secret of life.” Watson and Crick finished building their model in early March of 1953. The next day, allegedly, they received a letter from their co-conspirator Wilkins stating that Franklin was leaving King’s College so that they could now put “all hands to the pump.” This was also one day after two of Franklin’s papers had reached Acta Crystallographica for publication.

Crick and Watson then published their model in Nature on April 25, 1953 in an article describing the double-helical structure of DNA, with only a footnote acknowledging “having been stimulated by a general knowledge of” Franklin and Wilkin’s ‘unpublished’ contribution. Actually, although it was the bare minimum, they had just enough specific knowledge of Franklin’s data upon which to base their model. As a result of a deal struck by the two laboratory directors, articles by Wilkins and Franklin, which included their X-ray diffraction data, were modified and then published second and third in the same issue of Nature, seemingly only in support of the Crick and Watson discovery.

Eventually, Francis Crick would admit that her data were “the data we actually used” to formulate their 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers clearly showed that she had independently determined the overall form of the DNA helix (phosphate groups on the outside of the structure, as opposed to the original models of Watson and Crick as well as those of Pauling with the phosphates backasswards on the inside).

 So there you have it. Had she been a plaintiff (and, oh my, wouldn’t some of us have loved to have had her as a client), she would have very likely prevailed. She clearly owned an amazingly valuable trade secret, and treated it as such. Wilkins wrongfully disclosed her trade secret, and Watson and Crick wrongfully used it.

And, boy oh boy, did the defendants benefit from the theft! Watson and Crick were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine along with their co-conspirator Maurice Wilkins. They made tons of money starting with the prize money itself, landed prestigious jobs, speaking engagements, book deals, you name it. And, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of 38 years old of ovarian cancer four years before the thieves that stole her trade secrets were crowned as the world’s best chemists for determining the correct structure of DNA. Crime does pay sometimes.