Why Every Woman Needs to See “Photograph 51”

“My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race.”

These are the words of Nobel Prize winning scientist James Watson taken from his book,The Double Helix. I

These are the words of Nobel Prize winning scientist James Watson taken from his book,The Double Helix. In this quote he is describing his emotion upon first seeing a photograph taken by fellow scientist, Rosalind Franklin, his competitor in the race to discover the secrets of DNA. This photograph was no ordinary photograph. After hours of studying DNA structure using X-ray diffraction, Rosalind Franklin had discovered something that would change the course of DNA research forever.

Featured photo: The famous x-ray: Sodium deoxyribose nucleate from calf thymus, Structure B, Photo 51 taken by Rosalind E. Franklin and R.G. Gosling.

Franklin, along with her assistant, had discovered through hours of research that there were two forms of DNA, a dry “A” form and a wet “B” form. The photo that caused James Watson’s pulse to race was Franklin’s X-ray diffraction picture of the “B” form of DNA, famously known as Photo 51. This is the photo responsible for understanding the structure of DNA. You would imagine that Franklin received honor and recognition of the highest academic standard for such a discovery, but she didn’t. The story that follows seems somewhat unfathomable. Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51, coming to Broadway this year with Nicole Kidman in the lead, tells the story of this amazing woman who was forced to stand in the shadows of the men who claimed ownership of a discovery that was not rightfully their own.

We can’t wait for this play to hit the streets of New York because we can’t think of a more important story to be told night after night, under the lights of Broadway, than that of Rosalind Franklin and her Photo 51. Rosalind Franklin’s story will inspire and frustrate you. But most importantly, it will make you want to tell everyone you know. That’s what it did to us.

Here’s why:

An Early Visionary

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1920s London, Franklin showed signs of exceptional intelligence from a very young age. At age 15, she was determined to become a scientist, despite the disapproval of her father. In a time when women of her class were funneled into a life of philanthropy and social events, Franklin longed to deviate from the traditional path. However, her father disapproved of university education for women, and refused to pay for her tuition. It was only when her mother and aunt strongly pushed for her education, her aunt even offering to pay the tuition herself, that her father finally gave in.

You would imagine that Franklin received honor and recognition of the highest academic standard for such a discovery, but she didn’t. The story that follows seems somewhat unfathomable.

After earning her Ph.D in physical chemistry from Cambridge University, where she learned crystallography and X-ray diffraction, she worked for a lab in Paris before finally settling in London in 1951. Here, she began work at King’s College with her sights set on DNA research. Scientists everywhere were in a race to discover the secret of life, which they knew would be found in the structure of DNA. Understanding DNA was the key to unlocking the blueprint for all life on earth, and how it is passed down from generation to generation.

Franklin began working in the biophysics unit as a research associate. Director John Randall recognized her expertise in the area of X-ray diffraction techniques on DNA fibers. She applied these techniques to her work, spending hundreds of hours taking photos on a machine that she had refined herself. It was during these hours of research that she and her assistant took a photo of the B form of DNA that contained insight unknown to any other scientists working on DNA at the time. She saved the photo and put it aside while devoting more time to the A form, planning to revisit it when she was ready to publish her work.

However, someone at King’s College got in the way of this plan. His name was Maurice Wilkins.

Belittled and Betrayed

Franklin’s strict work ethic had alienated her from some of her fellow scientists. She had a particularly tense working relationship with a colleague named Maurice Wilkins, a relationship that yielded unfortunate results. She was determined to single handedly discover the structure of DNA, but Wilkins viewed her as an overbearing assistant, and a threat to his position at the university. He sarcastically nicknamed her “Rosy,” a nickname that Franklin hated, but one that Wilkins and others called her behind her back.  Their relationship hit an all-time low when, without her knowledge or permission, Wilkins found and then disclosed the valuable photo to her competitor, scientist James Watson.

At this time, James Watson was hard at work on DNA research of his own. He was attempting to create his own DNA model with Francis Crick at Cambridge. Thus far, their efforts to build this model were fundamentally flawed, receiving strong criticism from the scientific community, including Franklin. However, Franklin’s Photo 51 changed everything. Amazed by her findings, they used the photo that Wilkins gave them as a basis for their new DNA model, published in 1953 for which they received a Nobel Prize. Taking full credit, their published work in Nature magazine included only a footnote saying that they were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s unpublished photo. In reality, without Photo 51, they would have no model to publish.

Franklin was unhappy at King’s College, a place of sour relationships and absurd sexist rules. Despite her accomplishments, she and other female scientists were not even allowed to eat or gather in the common dining room, a room reserved only for male scientists. She found work elsewhere, and returned to her previous study of viruses. She published 17 papers within five years, working with a group of scientists to lay the foundation for structural virology. According to Franklin, working out the complex structure of a virus and locating its infectious element was her “greatest discovery.”

Her Final Years

Sadly, in the fall of 1956, Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, sending her into two years of operations and experimental chemotherapy. Many speculate that her intense work with X-Ray radiation was the cause of this cancer. However, all the while, she continued working. She worked in her home and then in the hospital up until just weeks before her death on April 16, 1958, at the young age of 37.

Photograph by Vittorio Luzzati

In his book, The Double Helix, James Watson cast Franklin as a villain, claiming she was an unattractive, uncooperative, stern woman who hoarded her research. In reality, others who knew and worked with her remember her as a beautiful and successful woman with a vibrant social life, loved by her friends and family. Watson’s book was highly criticized by fellow scientists, including Crick and Wilkins, who felt that it was an inaccurate representation of facts and unfair to other scientists mentioned. The only scientist that was painted in a flattering light was Watson himself. In his book, Watson boasts of using Franklin’s research without her knowledge or permission, saying, “Rosy of course did not directly give us her data,” intentionally using the patronizing nickname that she had knowingly disliked. However, by this time Franklin had passed away, unable to defend the unfair accounts made of her, as well as defend the work that was rightfully hers. The book was an immediate best seller.

Why Her Legacy Matters

This story may seem hard to believe. It is inspiring and frustrating, but what is most surprising is that it is generally unknown. While scientists and science students will perk up at the mention of Rosalind Franklin, her place in history remains generally under-appreciated. Until now.

With Nicole Kidman receiving wide recognition for her portrayal of Franklin, Anna Ziegler’sPhotograph 51 is eagerly awaited in New York with high expectations. Previously run in London’s West End last year, the play is set to open at either the Lyceum or the Broadhurst Theater this fall. As the shining star in an all-male cast, critics are suggesting that Kidman has seldom been cast better than in the role of Rosalind Franklin. Kidman is the perfect match to take on Franklin’s famously humorless and intimidating nature. In the play, a scientist says that talking to her about her work is “like speaking bad French to a French person who insists then on speaking to you in English just to show you you’re not good enough to speak to her in her own language, that she can walk all over you in any language, anywhere.” Kidman plays this role unapologetically, giving justice to a woman that survived in a world of patronizing men. Men who downplayed her accomplishments due to intimidation and sexism.

While scientists and science students will perk up at the mention of Rosalind Franklin, her place in history remains generally under-appreciated. Until now.

Franklin claimed that she was never wrong about her work, and wasn’t afraid to say it more than once. In a world where women in the workplace are often too quick to apologize, downplay accomplishments, and lack confidence, Franklin is a beacon of inspiration. Despite sexist working conditions, personal attacks, and pressure from her colleagues, Rosalind Franklin stood strong in the face of adversity with uncompromising dedication. To her, DNA research meant understanding the secrets of life. It meant making a difference and using science to contribute to the betterment of humankind. She passed away without knowing just how much of her research was used for Watson and Crick’s famous “discovery,” without knowing just how vital her photo was to their success. Or if she did know, she never uttered a word about it.

When Photograph 51 opens on Broadway this fall, we will be there, sitting at the edge of our front row seats. Because Franklin’s contributions, so under-recognized for so long, do not go unrecognized by us. Because Rosalind Franklin was not just good enough, she was exceptional — she was not just here, but was here for an incredible purpose.

Featured Image via the Museum of London; Written by Jessica Tomkins

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