Posts Tagged ‘Maurice Wilkins’

John Randall’s MRC Research Unit and Rosalind Franklin‘s role at Kings College

http://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2013/04/05/john-randalls-…ranklinds-role/ ‎

Larry H Bernstein, MD, FACP

My Personal View on the DNA Discovery

If it had not been for John Randall’s creation of an MRC Research Unit dedicated to the study of the physical and biological mechanisms of single cell division,

Today, if you asked who discovered the structure of DNA, the response should be:
  • Watson and Crick building atomic models in Cambridge and
  • Wilkins and Franklin et al., exploring x-ray diffraction patterns at Kings College in London.
Randall held the Wheatstone chair of physics and was director of the MRC unit,
  • funded in perpetuity with the avowed intent of applying “The Logi of Physics to the Graphi of Biology”—
  • in particular to the mechanisms causing division of living cells.

In the 1940s it was still being debated as whether it was the nuclear protein, the DNA or both together that were instigating cell division.

Randall was convinced by the work of Avery and others that DNA alone was the agent of division.
Accordingly he had several avenues of research progressing in his laboratory concerned solely with DNA.

Reporter: Larry H Bernstein, MD, FACP

Enter Raymond Gosling, participant and remembrance

The Genesis of a Discovery: First Steps
Raymond Gosling, D.Sc.

Knowing that sperm heads were closely packed with DNA, he had directed me, as his Ph.D. student, to make flat flakes of rams’ sperm and
expose them to x-rays, edge on, in the hope that the resulting diffraction pattern would reveal something of their DNA structure. The result
was a disappointing, fuzzy fiber diagram.

Meanwhile Maurice Wilkins had attended a lecture at the Royal Society by Rudolf Signer, a Swiss biochemist who had managed to extract DNA
from calf thymus gland at a very high molecular weight—around 12 million. At the end of his lecture, Signer offered some freeze-dried samples
of this sodium salt of the DNA, which Wilkins quickly accepted. Back in the lab he found that fibers drawn from a water gel of this material were
highly birefringent.
I asked him if I could try to get a diffraction pattern from a specimen of these fibers to compare

  • as a gold standard with those from my various attempts to persuade rams’ sperm to lie flat.
So Wilkins pulled the fibers varying from 5–10 µ in diameter and I wound them onto a paper clip. Testing the first specimen of 35 fibers with an x-ray
machine produced a result not much better than my sperm flakes. Most of the atoms in the fibers were the same as the air within the camera. We ad to
  • displace the air with hydrogen.
 Figure. The first diffraction pattern of crystalline DNA from a bundle of 35 fibers using copper radiation; camera radius 3 cm, exposure 96 hours,
taken in 1950 [Prof. Ray Gosling]
To monitor how much hydrogen I was putting into the camera, and the room, I bubbled it through water. This serendipitous act, to avoid an explosive
atmosphere, allowed the NaP ion complex in the fibers to take up water and
  • so form micro crystallites throughout each fiber. (The result is shown in the Figure).
When in the spring of 1950, I first saw all those discrete diffraction spots emerging on the film in the developer dish, it was a truly Eureka moment. I realized
that if DNA was the genetic material then I had just shown that
  • genes could crystallize. (Wilkins reacted enthusiastically)
At this stage Alex Stokes taught me some crystallography and armed me with
  • the concept of the sphere of reflection and reciprocal space.
  • The measurement of layer—the line separation in the pattern shown in the Figure gave the C axis repeat of the unit cell.
  • Trial and error assignment of HKL index values (reciprocal lattice points) to the other reflections, suggested that the unit cell was
    • Monoclinic C2 with values of A=22.0 Å, B=39.8 Å, Beta=96.5°, C=28.1 Å.
Thus, in late 1950, we had a unit cell with a diad axis at right angles to the fiber axis and the space group of crystallized gene material.

Secret of Life

At the beginning of 1950, Randall must have been quietly confident that his lab was getting close to the “secret of life.” We had brought together
a novel high intensity x-ray tube, kindly lent to us by Ehrenberg and Spear at Birkbeck, and a microcamera allowing us to obtain diffraction patterns
from single fibers of NaDNA. This was something that no other lab was currently able to do.

Randall’s response to this was to headhunt for an experimental scientist versed in using x-rays to solve the molecular structure of para-crystalline
material, such as was our sodium salt of DNA.

He found Rosalind Franklin, working in Paris in 1950, needing her to join us at Kings and lead the effort in

  • solving the puzzle of our beautiful diffraction pattern.

Later that year there was a meeting of Franklin, Stokes, and myself in which I was formally handed over to Franklin as her assistant, i.e., transferred
from the Wilkins/Stokes team to work exclusively with her.

Seeds of Conflict

Wilkins did not attend this meeting as he was away from the lab at this time. It left Franklin with the impression, subsequently and surprisingly confirmed
by a letter from Randall, that she would be in charge of the work of solving the structure. I realized later that she was unaware of the special position of Wilkins
vis-à-vis Randall in the structure and politics of the laboratories as a whole.
Unfortunately Franklin thought that she was a senior post-doctoral fellow and completely independent. Wilkins assumed that she would freely interact with him.
The seeds of conflict were sown. In retrospect I should have realized this and tried to prevent this conflict.
Early in 1951, Wilkins met James Watson at a conference where he had presented our work. Watson asked Wilkins if he could join the group at King’s but was rebuffed.
Consequently, he went to Bragg’s unit at Cambridge, where he met Francis Crick who knew our work, as he was a close friend of Wilkins.
Franklin joined the DNA group in early 1951. Her first directive to me was to make up a series of saturated salt solutions that would give a constant humidity to the hydrogen
we bubbled through to displace the air in our camera. So we were then able to take the same specimen through stages of water content from dry (disorientated pattern) to
92% humidity and to do this with a single fiber.

The Elegance of Franklin’s Science

This painstaking experimentation I later realized was the hallmark of her science. She was able to show that NaDNA could exist in two stable forms, which we named A and B.
We realized the published fiber diagrams up to now had been mixtures of these two forms. That I had produced a pure form of A with Maurice’s multifiber specimens was serendipitous.
This was achieved by adjusting the flow of dry hydrogen through water to give a steady 75% humidity. My concern was only not to blow myself up by filling the lab with hydrogen
and getting a spark from 50,000 volts on the rather old x-ray tube.

As to the structure, it was obvious from the B pattern— Photo 51—that at high humidity the molecule was helical. From Stoke’s theoretical math we found that the

  • diameter was 20Å and the repeat distance was 34 Å containing 10 nucleotides per turn of the helix with a slope of 40°.
Franklin was more interested in the crystallized gene structure shown in “A.” Her view was that although “B” was helical it did not necessarily follow that “A” was.

 Direct Structural Information

Franklin and I convinced ourselves that we had so much direct structural information in the intensity and position of the diffracted beams, nearly a 100, that we should
  • calculate a Patterson Function from the data.
  • This would show helical or asymmetric chains (without the need to build models).
At this time we were summoned to Cambridge to see a proposed structural model that Watson and Crick had built. This showed the Na/P ionic atoms forming a central core
and the sugar rings coming out to the bases on the outside. We knew the Na/P complex must be on the outside of the structure because the water went in and out so easily.
It was the only time Crick had seen Watson at a loss for words!  With hindsight it is easy to see that the structure they had built must be wrong. It is known that
  • there are 3 billion base pairs in the human genome.
  • At 34Å thick, this would mean a length of 102 cm,
    • it required greater flexibility to allow folding of the structure to fit into the cell nucleus.

 Off and On Again Model Building

 We returned to Kings and started with renewed vigor on our

  • intensity measurements
  • correction factors
  • Patterson function calculations
For us, model building was out. Bragg forbade Watson and Crick from any further model building. The DNA problem, it was agreed, belonged to Kings!

However some months later, on learning that Pauling was actively thinking of DNA structure, Bragg lifted his ban on model building!
Watson and Crick began building models again, this time using our data as to helical radius 10Å, and to the number of nucleotides along the fiber axis
per repeat interval, 10 in 34Å, and the space group of structure A, Monoclinic C2. This permitted Crick to rightly postulate

  • two chains per lattice point related by a diad axis, i.e., one going up and one going down.
When they added to this data, the specific pairing of the bases all fell into place. We were summoned once more to Cambridge. We were now convinced.
It was so elegant, it must be right. Frankin and I examined our Patterson data and everywhere we looked we could see indications of a double helix.

The Aftermath and a Kind Appraisal

I think it is very sad that Franklin was never able to see the exponential mushrooming of molecular biology resulting from her work. I would love to have
heard her opinion of the current controversy on the cloning of stem cells. The laws of the physical universe will always apply, and it is only our interpretation
and use of the data that may be wrong. However, when experimenting with living material, even the protocol of the experiment may be questioned.

I believe Franklin would have advocated a global approach to the regulation of such work. We are now facing

  • direct manipulation of the evolution of our species
  • and the creation of new transgenic life forms.

A problem probably more important than global warming.
Raymond Gosling, D.Sc., carried out research on the structure of DNA with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College in London,

under the leadership of Sir John Randall.
Genetic Engineering $ Biotechnology News   Thurs, April 18, 2013

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Interview with the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA: Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD. RN

As a new edition of The Double Helix hits bookshelves, Boing-Boing‘s Maggie Koerth-Baker takes the opportunity to interview James Watson about his characterization of Rosalind Franklin, who, Koerth-Baker says, “is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature” and referred to throughout as “Rosy,” even though that was not a nickname she used.

Reconsideration of Rosalind Franklin by James Watson

As a new edition of The Double Helix hits bookshelves, Boing-Boing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker takes the opportunity to interview James Watson about his characterization of Rosalind Franklin, who, Koerth-Baker says, “is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature” and referred to throughout as “Rosy,” even though that was not a nickname she used.

Answering questions by email, Watson admits that his perception of Franklin was “colored” by his friendship with Maurice Wilkins, who was openly hostile toward her.

As the new edition of the book illustrates, the friction between Franklin and Wilkins was largely due to miscommunication. While Wilkins believed Franklin was hired to be his assistant, a letter from their department head, John Randall, published in the new edition indicates that she was actually hired to lead the DNA project.

“Reading Watson’s perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn’t communicating very well with either Franklin or Wilkins,” Koerth-Baker says.

Watson tells her that the Randall letter “makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why — that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.”

Would Watson portray Franklin any differently if he were to write the book today?

“I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe,” he tells Koerth-Baker. “But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin.”

In addition, he says, “I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice,” which is “made vivid” in another letter reproduced in the book.


The Turn of the Screw: James Watson on The Double Helix and his changing view of Rosalind Franklin

 at 7:57 am Thu, Nov 8

The Double Helix is a famous book. It’s also an infamous one. Written by James Watson in 1968, it tells the story of how he and Francis Crick figured out the structure of DNA. The catch is that Watson chose to write that story in what was, at the time, a damn-near unprecedented way. He didn’t write a history. He didn’t exactly write an autobiography, either. Instead, The Double Helix is a bookabout history, told in story form, where everything is seen through the eyes of a single narrator — the 25-year-old James Watson.

He is not the world’s most likable narrator. Nor the most reliable one. I mean that in the sense of the “unreliable narrator” from fiction. We see this world through young Watson’s eyes, and his perspective isn’t always accurate. The story is shaped by his prejudices and his personality, and it can’t really be read as THE account of what actually happened. That’s a good thing, because the choice of style allowed Watson to really capture the back-room conflict (and cooperation), and the sense of urgency, that drives scientific discovery. It’s a bad thing because it’s far too easy to forget that The Double Helix has more in common with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood than, say, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s not a scholarly history. It’s more like memoir crossed with narrative non-fiction. You can’t walk away from it thinking that Watson’s narration represents some kind of objective truth.

The new, annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helix — published this month by Simon and Schuster — makes that fact abundantly clear. Full of photographs, letters, handwritten notes, and commentary from other people involved in the history of DNA, this edition gives you glimpses of other perspectives — of a story much bigger than the one told in The Double Helix, itself.

It also made me wonder about James Watson’s reaction to documents that completely upend the story as he told it — especially documents relating to Rosalind Franklin, a scientist whose work was instrumental in deciphering DNA’s structure and who is unfairly maligned in the book as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature.

So I asked him about it.

I should clarify that I wasn’t able to talk to James Watson by phone. This interview was done via email, and that’s not my favorite way to work. With email (and you’ll see this) it’s far too easy to end up with one-sentence answers to complicated questions. Worse, there’s no opportunity for follow-ups. But I do appreciate the Watson took the time to write some good answers to my questions about Franklin, and I wanted to share those with you.

First, though, a little background. Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist who worked primarily with x-ray crystallography, a method of determining the shape and structure of things that we can’t see with our own eyes. Imagine that you have captured Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. You can’t see it. But you know it’s there because when you throw a rubber ball at the space, the ball bounces back to you. If you could throw enough rubber balls, from all different sides, and measure their trajectory and speed as they bounced back, you could probably get a pretty good idea of the shape of the plane.

That’s basically what x-ray crystallography does. You shoot x-rays at a crystalline structure, like a molecule of DNA. Those beams hit the molecule and bounce off and you use the patterns of diffraction to learn something about the molecule’s shape.

In the early 1950s, James Watson and Francis Crick were attempting to figure out the structure of DNA, but they weren’t the only ones. In fact, Crick had avoided getting involved with DNA for several years because his friend, Maurice Wilkins, was also studying it. This is where Franklin comes in.

In 1950, the head of Wilkins department hired Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins — and his friends Crick and Watson — were under the impression that Franklin was supposed to be Wilkins’ assistant. But she didn’t act like his assistant. She acted like his colleague or, perhaps, his competitor. And that disconnect between who Wilkins thought Franklin was supposed to be and who she thought she was created a really shitty working environment. Wilkins was angry at Franklin, and his anger seems to have rubbed off on how his friends perceived her. Mix that with a little sexism and you get some of The Double Helix‘s most controversial parts. Here’s an excerpt from James Watson’s initial description of Franklin:

I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.

It goes without saying that Watson was not particularly concerned with the fashion choices of his male colleagues. Likewise, the nickname “Rosy” isn’t one that Franklin ever used. It was bestowed on her, and really only behind her back. Throughout The Double Helix, Watson refers to her as Rosy, even while calling other people by their formal last names. Or, at least, by names they would have called themselves.

But one of the interesting things this edition of The Double Helix does is shine some light on the initial conflict. On the page opposite the description I quoted above, you can see a photocopy of a letter, sent to Franklin by the department head, where he basically tells her that she’s been hired to lead the DNA project — not to work for Maurice Wilkins.

Basically, Franklin was right in thinking that she wasn’t Wilkins’ assistant.

Reading Watson’s perspective alongside the letter and a footnote explaining how Wilkins saw the situation, it becomes clear that one of the most famous conflicts in the history of science started because the department head wasn’t communicating very well with either Franklin orWilkins. In this reading, Watson kind of becomes the catty best friend, attacking somebody his pal was angry with even though he didn’t know all the details of what was going on. It’s Facebook drama in the laboratory.

And that brings me to the questions I asked Watson.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: I very much enjoyed this edition of the book, and the fact that it contained all these documents that provided some contrasting viewpoints and added to the depth of your perspective. And it seems like, in some cases, you’d originally written the book without having seen certain documents that end up significantly changing the story. In particular, I’m thinking of the letter from John Randall to Rosalind Franklin showing that she was right in thinking she hadn’t been hired to be Maurice Wilkins’ assistant, but rather his colleague. I’m curious about when you finally found out about that letter and what you thought about it. Did it change your perspective on the conflicts between Wilkins and Franklin?

James Watson: The Randall letter was discussed in Brenda Maddox’s biography of Franklin [in 2003] and that’s probably where I first became aware of it. But in this edition, Alex and Jan reproduce the whole letter – one of the pleasures of this edition is the number of letters and other documents they reproduce as facsimiles. Its fun to see letters just as their recipients saw them.

This letter makes me think even more what a tragic situation Wilkins and Franklin found themselves in. Wilkins had begun the DNA work at King’s and had it taken away from him and given to Franklin, without understanding why–that Randall had made the arrangements described in this letter. The situation would have been intolerable for anyone, let alone two such incompatible characters as Wilkins and Franklin.

MKB: I’d like to ask you a question about your treatment of Franklin, given that it’s one of the things The Double Helix is rather famous for. Or, perhaps, infamous. You set out to write a book that captured your thoughts and feelings and viewpoint as a young man, in this specific time period, in an often-contentious working environment. But I’m curious about how your perspective on those events has changed over time. If you were to sit down and write about the events in this book now, not through your at-the-time perspective, but as you think about the past today, would it change the way that you portrayed Dr. Franklin? How has the way you think about her changed as you’ve gotten older?

JW: We didn’t know Franklin well–I only met her perhaps three times and Francis once in this period. So, my view of her was inevitably colored by our friendship with Wilkins and what he told us about her.

I am not an historian and wouldn’t want to write the book you describe. But if I were to do so, I would, of course, refer to the Randall letter and show how it set up the misunderstanding. I would write more sympathetically about the plight of both Wilkins and Franklin. I would also be able to write about her views of life at King’s College, including her dislike of her colleagues, in particular Maurice. This is made vivid in her correspondence, especially in one letter reproduced in the book.

In this new edition, I notice that Ray [Gosling – her student] has rather a good line in response to my comments about her appearance. He notes that I never saw her dressed up to go out in the evening, and that she had an elegance that I probably never saw.

I mentioned that Francis and I hardly knew Franklin at this time. Later, of course, we both saw more of her, as she was very much part of the elite structural biology community – her excellent work on TMV ensured that (though is often over-looked in popular accounts of her life). [He’s referring to her work with tobacco mosaic virus, which she spent the last few years of her life studying. TMV was the first virus ever discovered and Franklin’s work was instrumental in our understanding of RNA viruses. Franklin died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. — MKB]

Rosalind Franklin’s Photo 51, an x-ray crystallography image of DNA.

There’s a bit more to the Franklin-Watson/Crick story than just office squabbling. One of the most controversial points concerns a particular x-ray crystallography image that she took, which was shown to Watson without Franklin’s knowledge or permission. That image ended up playing an important role in Watson’s and Crick’s ability to figure out the structure of DNA. But this edition of the book — and Watson’s answers — provide a deeper view of what was going on in the background — how a personality conflict and bad management led to a much bigger controversy that people are still arguing about today.

I asked James Watson three other questions about the book, as well. His answers to these were less substantive, but you can read them below. In general, I’d definitely recommend this edition of The Double Helix. If you’re going to read the book, this is the way it ought to be read. As James Watson’s limited view of his own life, it’s interesting. But the history really comes alive when you can see more of what everybody around him was thinking, as well. Among the gems: three pages of Francis Crick’s six-page letter urging Watson to not publish The Double Helix, to begin with.


MKB: I’m curious about what got you interested in writing a book like The Double Helix to begin with. At the time, it was far out of the norm for the way that scientists wrote about science and, in fact, it was fairly far out of the norm for the way anyone wrote about anything. Narrative non-fiction was still a developing field, even from the perspective of journalists. What influenced your desire to write a story this way and what did you look to for inspiration?

James Watson: The story was too good not to be told as it actually happened!

MKB: One of the things that stands out to me in the book is your frustration with stuffy and bureaucratic social expectations within the scientific community. In particular, I’m thinking about some of the early chapters, where you talk about Francis Crick being unable to study DNA because Maurice Wilkins already was and it would have been poor form for another English scientist to try and “scoop” him, as it were. How have you seen this aspect of science change in the years since you wrote The Double Helix? Have some of those formalities fallen away? What are the new social twists you see young scientists having to navigate?

JW: Friendships almost have to evaporate when a scientist chooses unilaterally to work toward a scientific objective also pursued by a friend.

MKB: I was really struck by your description of Linus Pauling and the way he announced his findings in theatrical lectures. It reminded me a bit of some of the more theatrical, hyped-up scientific pronouncements of recent years, especially the now-discredited findings like arsenic life and faster-than-light neutrinos. In the wake of those events, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how this was so outside the norm for scientists, but it doesn’t seem much different from Pauling’s tactics. It’s just that he was usually right. I’m curious about your thoughts on this. Do you see more theatrics in science today? How do you think the increased media spotlight has influenced the way scientists announce their work to the public? And how do you see your role in that, given the fact that The Double Helix was a major part of popularizing science and making it something more breathless and story-driven?

JW: I find theatrical performances even rarer than when Pauling lived. Almost no one now risks offending pompous individuals in the audience who later might review either their research articles or judge their applications for research money. Today’s science stifles individuality.

• The annotated and illustrated edition of The Double Helixby James Watson is available in hardcoverKindle, and eBook.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook



Shining a Light on the ‘Dark Lady of DNA’

By Josh Fischman
Posted Sunday, August 6, 2006

Four people in England, back in 1953, gazed at the mysterious image called Photo 51. It wasn’t much–a grainy picture showing a black X. But three of these people won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what the photo really showed–the shape of DNA, the basic unit of life on Earth. The discovery brought fame and fortune to scientists James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. The fourth, the one who actually made the picture, was left out.

Her name was Rosalind Franklin. “She should have been up there,” says Mary Ellen Bowden, a historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. “If her images hadn’t been there, the others couldn’t have come up with the structure.” One reason Franklin was missing was that she had died of cancer four years before the Nobel decision, and it can’t be awarded after death. But there is a growing suspicion among scholars that Franklin was not only robbed of her life by disease but robbed of credit by her competitors. She, as much as the men around her, was first in the race to understand DNA.

Scientists knew, in the 1940s, that DNA was the thing carrying hereditary information from an organism to its descendants. But because it was too small to see directly, they had no idea how the molecule performed this feat.

Cutouts. So at Cambridge University in the 1950s, Watson and Crick went at it indirectly, by making models; they cut up shapes of DNA’s constituents and tried to piece them together. Meanwhile, at King’s College in London, Franklin and Wilkins shined X-rays at the molecule. The rays produced patterns reflecting the shape.

But Wilkins and Franklin’s relationship was a lot rockier than the celebrated teamwork of Watson and Crick. Wilkins thought Franklin was hired to be his assistant. But the college actually brought her on to take over the DNA imaging project.

Which is what she did, producing X-ray pictures that, among other things, told Watson and Crick that one of their early models was inside out. And she was not shy about saying so. That antagonized Watson, who lambasted her in his 1968 book, The Double Helix: “Mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. … Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.” (Other colleagues remember her as a supportive and highly skillful scientist.)

As Franklin’s rivals, Watson and Wilkins had much to gain by cutting her out of the clubby little group of researchers, says science historian Pnina Abir-Am of Brandeis University. Exclusion was made easy by her gender–King’s banned women from important dining rooms. And Wilkins grew closer to Watson. Close enough to show to Watson, casually, Franklin’s Photo 51. “My mouth fell open,” Watson wrote. That X shape was in fact a double helix, two strands wrapped around one another but running in opposite directions. This made it a biological copying machine, able to transmit mirror images of information from one cell to a daughter cell, from a parent to a child.

Watson and Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin published separate papers describing this code of life in the same 1953 issue of Nature. Franklin went on to study viruses, and then took sick, and in 1962 the others took to the Nobel podium. Wilkins gave a speech in which he thanked 13 colleagues by name before he mentioned Franklin. Watson wrote his book deriding her. Crick wrote in 1974 that “Franklin was only two steps away from the solution.”

No, says Abir-Am: Franklin was the solution. “She contributed more than any other player to solving the structure of DNA. She must be considered a codiscoverer.” Lynne Osman Elkin, a biographer of Franklin, agrees, saying that Franklin’s notebooks show she was on to the double helix–a claim backed up by Aaron Klug, who worked with Franklin on viruses and later won a Nobel Prize himself. Once described as the “Dark Lady of DNA,” Franklin is finally coming into the light.

This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report. Article available online: <http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/060806/14dna.htm>



Photo 51—A Recent Addition to History-of-Science-Inspired Theatre

Pnina G. Abir-Am, PhD, Brandeis University

The play Photograph 51, named after the sharpest image in a series of DNA X-ray photos taken by Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) in a biophysics lab at King’s College, London in 1952, played this past spring at the Central Square Theatre1 in Cambridge, MA.

This Theatre is fittingly located between M.I.T. (which co-sponsors it) and Harvard, two institutions still recovering from a few scandals on the under-representation of women in science. The play is thus timely, coming as it does on the heels of “Barriers and Bias,” the National Academy of Science Reports (2006, 2007, 2009) that try to address the persisting gender inequality in science. But the play has a wider connection to the history of science because it deals not only with gender bias in science, but also with the paramount issue of credit allocation in scientific discovery.

HSS Newsletter readers may recall that the 2003 HSS Annual Meeting2 (incidentally held in Cambridge, MA. not too far from this Theatre) featured two sessions on “DNA at 50” which explored new perspectives on the discovery of DNA structure at its 50th anniversary. But unlike our HSS speakers who explored archival material, (in the regular session) or their own memories (in the panel at which attendees, including former HSS President Gerald Holton, posed questions to local DNA luminaries, Paul Doty, Wally Gilbert, and Alex Rich), this well-received play relies mainly on biographies,3 and on a namesake PBS documentary, aired in 2003: “DNA: Secret of Photo 51.”

The discovery of DNA’s structure, having been embroiled in controversy for decades,4 provides a perfect opportunity for playwrights to apply their dramatic license. The controversy revolves around the unacknowledged use of Rosalind Franklin’s work in the famous paper announcing the double helix conformation of DNA. Franklin’s premature death enabled others to both obscure her role and take all the credit for themselves,5 much as the premature death of the discoverer of the Nile’s origins provided an opportunity for another “colleague” to claim all the credit for himself.6

It is thus impossible to grasp the importance of a play7such as Photograph 51, that “succeeds in focusing a long-overdue spotlight on Rosalind Franklin…the playwright makes Franklin seem worthy of that spotlight, not just as a neglected figure of science but as a compelling character,”8 without recalling the insightful “cultural background” that precedes the play. According to The Double Helix, which is included on the reading lists of many courses and remains the only “source” most theatre goers would have read, Crick and Watson had to leave their official scientific missions in protein and virus structure, respectively, so as to rescue scientific progress in DNA from its blockage at the hands of Rosalind Franklin. She is portrayed as a recalcitrant woman scientist who refused to collaborate with their friend, the more-veteran lab member Wilkins, even though she was presumably unable to interpret her own results because of her supposed “anti-helical” bias. Consequently, the three men had no choice but to obtain the golden data by whatever means they could. (Those means were still debated half a century later.)

Though the transition from Photo 51 to the model of the double helix raises interesting questions on the relationship between the context of discovery and the context of justification, which could have been pursued in the manner of Copenhagen,9 Photograph 51 opts for interrogating the role of gender bias in preventing Franklin from both completing the discovery of DNA structure on her own, as well as in not getting credit for it. This “take” is justified by the fact that in addition to her “scientific sins,” (i.e. not being content in the role of an assistant and making discoveries on her own) Franklin was further demonized as “Rosy.” That nickname, used behind her back, captured a female character as negative as the male imagination of the early 1950s could sustain, i.e. a glasses-wearing bluestocking, poorly dressed, ignorant of lipstick, lashing at more veteran men, asocial and hence lonely, and last, but not least, lacking romantic prospects at the ripe age of 31. That “Rosy” was the very opposite of historical reality did not seem to matter to its “creators” who openly pandered to their audience’s sexism.

Photograph 51 thus revolves around the sensible idea that if there was a failure to collaborate, then the blame for it must be shared more equitably among the involved parties. Since the charge that Franklin was uncooperative originated with Wilkins, the play focuses on the role of gender in poisoning the work relationships between him and Franklin. But the play is unable to project a “balance of blame,” not for lack of talent on the part of the playwright whose dialogues are crisp and punchy, but rather because our culture remains so suffused with gender stereotypes that a mere balancing effort is not sufficient to better distribute blame across the gender divide. For example, Wilkins’ portrayal as smug and entitled does not strike the audience as so bad when compared to its portrayal of Franklin as a combative, fierce, unbendingly serious, and uncompromising female character.

However, the play’s portrayal of Wilkins as a captive of sexism who persists in regarding his colleague first and foremost as a woman whom he must date instead of seeing in her a scientist with complementary skills with whom he might collaborate, evokes well the predicament of women scientists in an era of “unmitigated sexism.” One scene revolves around a box of chocolate that Wilkins tries to force on Franklin who, to his endless surprise, declines it firmly. Women such as Franklin who chose not to surrender their bodies, were expected at the very least to surrender their body of work; if they refused, then the work was snatched anyway. The pretext that she was uncooperative was invented to justify such a scenario.10

By focusing on Franklin and her diverse relationships with men colleagues, (bad with Wilkins, but great with the graduate student Ray Gosling, and would-be boyfriend, scientist Don Caspar) Photograph 51 relegates the better-known saviors of scientific progress, Watson and Crick, further portrayed as a comic duo, to the margins, which is the way they must have looked in Franklin’s eyes. The play further contrasts the work ethics of seriousness of purpose and dedication on the part of Rosalind Franklin with the three men constantly bonding over drinks and having fun as they relax in gender-segregated dining halls. Since they spend so much time socializing and have no results of their own, they seem aware that their only way to fame is to “sniff” Franklin’s crucial data. I borrow this term from a theatre reviewer who also observed: “Franklin…is the clear intellectual hero. She is the purest, most genuinely curious scientist. The men, a casual bunch next to the burning, all-business Franklin, tend to be various strains of pig—ambitious, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc.”11

Indeed, this play dramatizes not only gender bias but also racial bias. In dialogues between Wilkins and Watson, Jews are referred to as difficult people or “ornerous,” whose loyalty to England should be questioned. There is enough in the play to suggest that race/ethnicity, as well as gender, were factors in Franklin’s decision to move to another lab. But perhaps both factors were even more important in providing the men with culturally endorsed motives for “blaming” her for their own problems, scientific and otherwise, thus paving the way for justifying their eventual “acquisition” of her data, data that she refused to surrender. In my own studies of the interaction between British science policy makers and Franklin’s lab, I came across references to “Jews and foreigners” as an undesirable trait of the lab. Apparently that trait was sufficient to require a special oversight committee over the lab, which ironically became yet another avenue for leaking Franklin’s results.12

Photo 51 does not explore another major component of the politics of identity that also played a key role in the discovery of DNA structure, that of class. This is an odd omission since in the predominantly British context of the play, class may well have been more crucial than either gender or race/ethnicity in explaining behavior (still, the sheer combination of all three variables over-determined this case). As it “happened,” all three men who sniffed Franklin’s data belonged to families that lost their middle class status during the Great Depression and hence, became obsessed with regaining their prior social respectability. For all three, the only way up at the time meant an association with a major scientific breakthrough.

By contrast, Franklin belonged to an upper-class family with a distinguished record in both civic affairs and philanthropy. One great-uncle, Viscount Herbert Samuel, was Head of the Liberal Party before WW1. Another was Lord Mayor of London.13 This social background, further coupled with gossip that her family was wealthy, (Lord Rothschild, a scientist whose namesake Report played a major role in British science policy in the 1970s was a second cousin) and that she had an allowance (though she insisted on living mainly from her modest salary) would have positioned Rosalind Franklin in the mind of these three men, all resentful at being demoted to the verge of genteel poverty, as a perfect target for revenge.

If we further recall that Wilkins and Crick were left by their first wives, (the play includes a line to that effect) and that Wilkins and Watson constantly solicited help from Crick (who lived in an open marriage with his second wife, an artist) in “finding women,” a vexing subject discussed endlessly; (apparently the women did not stick around since Wilkins and Watson continued to search for them until age 40) then, the unavailable Franklin was a constant reminder of their own far-from-shining predicament. No wonder they obsessed about her all the time and projected upon her their own social and scientific anxieties. The three men would have almost had to step outside their culture and society not to take advantage of an opportunity to become famous at the expense of a well to do, or “rich” in common parlance, Jewish woman who in their opinion didn’t even “need” a career in science. Class, race, gender, and sexuality melted any moral or ethical dilemma they might have faced. How could the playwright miss an opportunity to make more of the class, race and sex aspects of such material?!

Most of the reviews I have seen14 were appreciative of the production. (The sleek lab set is often praised, as well as the direction, and the acting.) To my delight they were also receptive of the main idea that a woman scientist with a compelling character, commitment to her vocation, and major scientific achievement was robbed of her share of glory by three men: her “emotionally constipated, professionally unsupportive colleague Maurice Wilkins,” a “bluff, worldly Crick” and an “intensely disagreeable Watson.”15 But at least one theatre critic, was sufficiently troubled by what he calls an “ideological version of her story” in this play to conduct his own research.16 Though he praises the playwright for treading “a mostly sure-footed middle ground between the ideological version of the story and the more prosaic historical one,” the critic believes that his own research lowers the play’s dramatic impact (which revolves around the disparity of fortune between those who do the work and those who take the credit). That critic, who kept the nature of his “research” to himself, tries to salvage the status quo (i.e. that the distribution of credit for this discovery is problematic but it does not require major revision17) by invoking Franklin’s departure from King’s, among related insights. I omit them here not only for reason of space but also because they are already known to historians of science to be factually incorrect.

By highlighting the profound dependence of the double helix model upon Franklin’s work, the play joins those who raised questions as to why the scientific community continues to misallocate credit for this discovery for half a century. Though not as dramatic as “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning play, at which audiences of hundreds gasp at once when the mathematician’s daughter tells his male student heirs “I did not find the proof in my father’s drawer; I wrote it,” Photograph 51 exposes the audience to the perspective of a woman scientist who made a major discovery on her own, not as the daughter, wife, or relative of a male scientist. The play also caters to post-feminist sensibilities by suggesting that even a woman who prioritized a career in science over marriage can eventually meet a man who can both understand her passion for discovery and be romantically involved with her; this is so, especially if she is smart enough to look at younger men.

Finally, Photo 51 also raises more general questions on the usefulness of such theatrical dramatizations for STEM initiatives, along with stimulating historians of science to reexamine a historiography that has accepted too easily the scientists’ version of discovery. In conclusion, despite its dependence on historiographically outdated material (the lack of collaboration between Franklin and Wilkins, or these materials’ key role in the case of Crick and Watson, pillars of the play and of the received view, are both red herrings, invoked to justify problematic outcomes) and its avoidance of many other key issues in the discovery of DNA structure, as a comparison with the BBC movie Life Story, (1987) can easily reveal, this play can be seen as breaking new ground by calling attention to the key role of gender in the process and outcome of a major discovery.

From a more personal perspective, I hope that the play will prove useful in preparing the public, including historians of science and scientists, for a new, more radical interpretation of the history of the discovery of DNA structure. Soon audiences will need to cope with the historical evidence that I have been assembling for my book DNA at 50, evidence that is bound to surprise those who believe that we already know how the discovery of DNA’s structure was made. Unlike the playwright, I do not need to use artistic license for the simple reason that the actual history of this discovery proved to be dramatic in its own right.


1 The play’s run was February 9 to March 18, 2012; for information on the playwright, director, and actors in this production see CentralSquareTheatre.org; see also the review in the Boston Globe, http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/
. The play had previously been staged in LA and WDC, where it was also well received.

2 http://www.hssonline.org/Meeting/oldmeetings/archiveprogs/
 [co-organized with Bill Summers of Yale]

3 Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, 2003, was better received than Rosalind Franklin and DNA; (Anne Sayre, 1975) the latter was initially dismissed as a “feminist plot,” but was reissued in 2000. One of the speakers in our HSS session in 2003, Lynn Osman Elkin, a Professor of Biology at UC-Berkeley, is transforming Sayre’s book into an educational manual. Her talk was based on her essay, “Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix,” Physics Today, March 2003, 42-48. She also served as a consultant to the namesake PBS documentary.

4 For example, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology with James D. Watson for their work on DNA, succeeded in blocking the latter’s The Double Helix, A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA Structure from being published by Harvard University Press but they did not object to a commercial press. Crick referred to it as a “pack of nonsense.” But the pertinent correspondence on the controversy surrounding the 1968 publication became available at a much later time.

5 Elkin 2003, Maddox 2003, Sayre 1975, op.cit. These authors were concerned to establish Franklin’s centrality rather than providing a full historical account of the discovery of DNA structure. I aim to provide such an account in my forthcoming book, DNA at 50: From Memory to History, which reexamines all the various players, both known and unknown, in the discovery of DNA structure, including Franklin, in light of new archival sources.

6 The discoverer, John H. Spelke died accidentally on the day of a projected debate with Francis F. Burton, who then proceeded to claim the discovery for himself. To this day Burton is known as the Victorian explorer who solved a riddle that preoccupied civilization since ancient Greek and Roman times, while the actual discoverer remained obscured for a century and a half. See Tim Jeal, Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure. (2011)

7 Photo 51 is so far the more successful among several plays written on Rosalind Franklin. Commissioned in 2008 it won the STAGE prize for plays on science and technology.

8 Dan Aucoin, The Boston Globe, 2-15-2012 (bostonglobe.com/arts/2012/02/15)

9 By Michael Frayn. (London: Methuen Drama, 1998) For its resonance among historians of science see “Copenhagen and Beyond: The Interconnections between Science, Drama, and History,” Seminar at the Niels Bohr Institute (NBI) organized by Finn Aaserud, Director of NBI Archive, November 19, 1999; “Drama Meets History of Science,” Symposium, NBI Archive, September 22-23, 2001. Mara Beller, Cathy Carson, Mathias Dorries, Robert Friedman, Jan Golinsky, Klaus Henschel, among others, address the issue of “blurred genres” in the dramatization of episodes from the history of science in ways that are suggestive for my analysis of Photo 51. See also “Creating Copenhagen, A Symposium Exploring Scientific, Historical, and Theatrical Perspectives Surrounding the Events of the Acclaimed Play ‘Copenhagen’, GC-CUNY, New York City, March 27, 2000, Chris Smith and Brian B. Schwartz, “producers.”

10 For other such cases see, for example, that of a woman scientist at an Ivy League university in the Northeast who complained that she felt mugged when the lab director put his name, as well as those of his three male protégées, on a discovery that she had made and was trying to publish; she was told to be content since she had not been raped; for further details see Catherine Brady, Elizabeth Blackburn and the Story of Telomeres, (The MIT Press, 2007) p. 43. The issue of misallocation of scientific credit affects of course both women and men, but this play deals with misallocation affecting a woman.

11 Nelson Pressley, “Theater Review: ‘Photograph 51’ at Theater J,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2011.

12 Nature Reviews – Molecular Cell Biology, 3, January 2002, 65-70.

13 See Maddox 2003 for information on Franklin’s many relatives in public life.

14 E.g. The Boston Globe, 2-15-2012; The Washington Post, 4-4-2011; Los Angeles Chronicle, 3-31-2009; among other theatre specific outlets, e.g. DC Theatre Scene, see note 16.

15 Trey Graham, “Theatre J discovers DNA”, Washingtoncitypaper.com (4-1-11)

16 Steven McKnight, dctheatrescene.com, 3-31-11.

17 In 2003, the British government marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s structure as “50 years of excellence in British science” and included Rosalind Franklin among the (now four) discoverers. In my above-mentioned book I also include Rosalind Franklin as a discoverer, a conclusion that differs from the current historiographic status-quo, as to the number of discoverers.


Photo 51—A Recent Addition to History-of-Science-Inspired Theatre

Pnina G. Abir-Am, Brandeis University Newsletter of the History of Science Society, Vol. 41, No. 3, July 2012


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