Sunday, November 21, 2010

rosalind franklin gets her closeup

This weekend I went to get a chest x-ray for a minor but persistent lung infection that doesn't seem to want to go away. While at the hospital, I chatted up the radiologist, a pleasant and efficient man who explained the procedure while securing around my waist a heavy lead sheet. I knew that the sheet was meant to protect my reproductive organs from potentially harmful effects of the radiation I was about to receive. So I quipped that I'd just seen a play about Rosalind Franklin, and that I was all too happy to don the bulky shield if it meant keeping my ovaries in good, working order.

"Rosalind Franklin?" the radiologist repeated quizzically. "Who's that?"

It's a question I'd expect from, oh, pretty much anyone without a significant science background. But I was rather shocked and dismayed to hear it from someone who not only works in the very field that Franklin contributed so much to, but who utilizes every day the same stuff that made Franklin's historic career—and that led to her untimely death. And so, as playwright Anna Ziegler did so eloquently in her recent production at the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan, I couldn't help but muse, in nothing more than a hospital gown and leaden sash: What if?

Photograph 51 tells the story of Rosalind Elsie Franklin (pictured below), a British physicist and biochemist who made major insights into the molecular structures of coal, graphite, viruses, and the hereditary molecules DNA and RNA. In particular, the play centers on her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, which tantalized scientists until the April, 1953 publication of three papers in the journal Nature. These papers, one of which was co-authored by Franklin, effectively elucidated the biological mechanism of reproduction—or as many have dubbed it, the secret of life.

Though Photograph 51 is billed as a fictionalized account of the personalities surrounding the discovery of DNA's structure, Ziegler clearly did her homework. Much of the information presented in the play has been documented as fact: In 1951, Franklin went to work with Maurice Wilkins at Kings College London on x-ray photography of the structures of biological molecules; Franklin and Wilkins formed an icy relationship, resulting in less of a professional partnership than a simple sharing of physical space at the Medical Research Council's biophysics unit; For two years, Franklin worked tirelessly, with the help of her grad student Raymond Gosling, to create x-ray diffraction images of DNA in an effort to uncover its form; Wilkins and rivals James Watson and Francis Crick would ultimately share the glory for their work on DNA's double-helix structure, while Franklin's contributions were largely ignored; It later became known that Watson and Crick had, unbeknownst to Franklin, secretly been shown one of her unpublished photographs, which led directly to their determination of the correct DNA structure.

While the play raises many questions about how and why this all came to be, Ziegler makes no apologies for Franklin's apparently prickly personality and the role it may have played in history's outcome. It was refreshing for me to watch actress Kristen Bush in the lead role, not only because she nailed the repression of Franklin's inner conflicts, but because despite all that I'd ever read about Franklin in books and articles popular and scientific, I'd never really envisioned how her contrary comportment might really have come across. I'd certainly known that her reputation was far from that of a cuddly teddy bear, but sometimes it really takes hearing the words and seeing the facial and body expressions to appreciate what a person was truly like in the flesh.

It's tempting now to consider what Franklin—who died of ovarian cancer at 37, just five years after the DNA structure was confirmed—might have thought of her legacy today. In some sense, it would be logical to conclude that she'd have been embarrassed by the whole thing and would have urged people to accept what happened and move on. But I can't shake the feeling that she would have been pleased at having become a feminist icon for women who, half a century later, still face uphill battles in being accepted as equals in the scientific world. One might also surmise that Franklin, at least privately, would have felt vindicated for being considered a pioneer after all the criticism that swirled around her personality and methods. In one of Photograph 51's early scenes, Wilkins fails to notice how hurt Franklin is that he's decided to lunch in the men-only common room on her first day at the lab. She feigns indifference but is obviously fuming inside, not only at the unfairness of this discrimination but at the clear slight by her new colleague. Yet just when you think she's going to let it pass, Franklin comes straight to the point about her displeasure upon Wilkins's return from lunch. She had no intention of letting it go, we find out . . . so why would she let a little thing like her legacy go unchallenged, either?

At the end of the day, of course, all we can do is speculate: What if she'd been more open to sharing her work? What if she'd been less methodical, more of a risk taker in the lab? What if she'd been easier to work with, more gregarious? What if she'd lived at a time when women were more accepted as scientists? What if she'd known about the dangers of radiation? What if she hadn't died before the Nobel were awarded for the discovery of DNA's structure? If any one of these factors had been different, might my radiologist have known who I was talking about when I mentioned Franklin's name the other day?

As her character opines in the play's final scene, I suppose we'll never know. What I do know is that I'm elated that Anna Ziegler and director Linsay Firman decided to bring Franklin's life to the stage. And I can only hope that Photograph 51 will be replicated in theaters everywhere, so that the world might ponder the same questions of biology, personality, history, happenstance, and the pursuit of knowledge.


  1. Nice post. Sorry to hear about the lung infection. Janet and I are also battling persistent respiratory "things," though it sounds like you're worse off than we are...

  2. Great post, Maia! Hope your X-Ray brought good news.

  3. Nice post.... Really makes me want to see the play!


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