Science Talk

Photograph 51: Rosalind Franklin and the Race for the Double Helix of DNA, Part 1 of 2

Photograph 51 is a new play about Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick, and the race to determine the structure of DNA, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, running through November 21st. This November 2nd, a panel discussion about the play and the issues it raises featured crystallography expert Helen Berman; biologist and Franklin scholar Lynne Osman Elkin; science journalist Nicholas Wade; playwright Anna Ziegler; and moderator Stuart Firestein

Photograph 51 is a new play about Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick, and the race to determine the structure of DNA at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, running through November 21st. A panel discussion about the play on November 2nd featured crystallography expert Helen Berman, biologist and Franklin scholar Lynne Osman Elkin, science journalist Nicholas Wade, playwright Anna Ziegler, and moderator Stuart Firestein. Web sites related to this episode include

Podcast Transcription

Steve:           Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on November 3rd, 2010. I am Steve Mirsky. London, 1953—scientists are on the verge of discovering what they call the secret of life, the DNA double helix. Providing the key is driven young physicist Rosalind Franklin. But if the double helix was the breakthrough of the 20th century, then what kept Franklin out of the history books? A play about ambition, isolation and the race for greatness. That's on the program for a panel discussion about the new play Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler and that play is about Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick and the search for the structure of DNA. I recorded the panel discussion, and you'll hear part 1 of that in a moment. I just want to give you a little more background. The production is an effort of the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. You may hear some reference to E.S.T. Sloan and that's what they're talking about during the panel. Now Photograph 51 refers to a very important x-ray defraction image that was key to the elucidation of the double helical structure. You're going to hear references to some individuals in addition to Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin, there's Maurice Wilkins as well as Ray Gosling who was an assistant, a post doc. You'll also hear reference to John Randall. Randall was the Director of the Department at King's College where Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins worked. And over at the Cavendish, you have Watson and Crick and also at Caltech in the States you had Linus Pauling and his group, all in a race to figure out the structure of the DNA in the early 1950s. The moderator of the panel discussion that took place Tuesday night at the Julia Miles Theater here in New York is Stuart Firestein, he'll introduce the rest of the panelists.

Firestein:          This is Anna Ziegler, the play writer of Photograph 51 (applause) and is an award-winning playwright; her plays also include Dov and Ali, BFF and Variations on a Theme. They've been, many of her plays been developed and produced in theaters around the world. She is currently working on an adaptation for Photograph 51 for Darren Aronofsky's company Protozoa Pictures. She is a graduate of Yale and also holds an MFA from the Tisch School of the arts here at NYU. (applause)

Dr. Helen Berman, received her PhD in Chemistry in 1967 from the University of Pittsburgh after 20 years at the Fox State Cancer Center—that's in Philadelphia, I believe, if I am correct. She joined [the] faculty at Rutgers, in New Brunswick, where she is now a Board of Governors professor of chemistry and chemical biology. Her research is centered on x-ray crystallographic studies for proteins and nucleic acids, [so] she is our expert on the panel tonight [in] that area. (applause) [I'm always glad to] to hear applause for expertise. Dr. Berman is a strong advocate of data sharing. In 1971 she was cofounder of the Protein Data Bank, which is the single international archive of experimentally-determined structures of proteins, nucleic acids and their complexes [and] she will explain a great deal more about that [work] tonight. In 1998 she became the Director of the Research Laboratory of Structural Bioinformatics part of the Protein Data Bank. This is an incredible and useful resource for the entire biological scientific community.

Firestein:          [Welcome] Dr. Lynne Osman Elkin who received her PhD from U.C. Berkeley in 1973. She has taught at California State University in Hayward, that's in the East Bay right down the road from Berkeley, for 33 years and now holds the title of Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences. She has performed original archival and interview research about Rosalind Franklin and the double helix since 1997. She has written and lectured on the topic in United States, in England, at universities, professional meetings and award ceremonies on Franklin; thank you for coming here tonight. (applause)

Firestein:          And finally Mr. Nicholas Wade. Nicholas is [a] science reporter for The New York Times. I am sure many of you are familiar with his work. Previously he worked in the news sections of two scientific journals, Nature and Science. He is also the author of several books, most recently the Faith Instinct: An Account of the Evolutionary Origins of Religions. Thank you very much, [Nicholas]. (applause)

Firestein:          [Just] to remind you, I'm Stuart Firestein, and I am a professor here in the city, at Columbia University; a professor of neuroscience and professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. My work centers around molecular understanding of the sense of smell or the olfactory system; or as I like to put it, I work on a very fundamental human question, which is how do I smell? Something we'd all like to know.

Firestein:          So let me make just a remark or two and then we will get to questions and discussion. My remark has to do with the state of science in our modern society and I feel that it's more and more becoming divided between experts and [ignoramuses] and this is a big problem. Because even for those of us who are "experts", we're only experts in a very narrow area and everywhere else we're just all the same kind of [ignoramus]. I watch with some trepidation a narrowing, a continued narrowing of my own field= such that I read [fewer] and fewer papers in the general field of neuroscience and more and more in my own specific area. I think it's a fundamental principle of the EST Sloan Project that neither expertise nor ignorance is an acceptable excuse for under-appreciating the [role] of science in our modern society. I think we all recognize its critical importance in our daily lives whether, it's in regard to the physics and chemistry of climate, the computer science and mathematics of cryptography and security, the biology of stem cells or genes. [Perhaps] many of you saw today in the front page of the business section of The New York Times, [there is] a big article on the legal issues, now the legal battle forming over whether genes can be  [patented] or not, something that will be of extreme importance to all of us who still need to have some basis of understanding. So these are all issues they confront individually and as a community and one forum for bringing these things into something like [daylight for us all] is to use the popular media of theater and film, and this is what, of course, the Sloan Foundation is up to. In Photograph 51, we have an iconic moment in science: [the] discovery of DNA structure [which leads to an] appreciation of how it works [and the passing] down of hereditary characteristics and as a mechanism for evolution. Somehow or another through the theatrical production, we can find some way to revisit this iconic moment; we get to relive it in a way that I think it would never appear in a textbook. So the nature of science, I think, is that the innovative will after sometime become commonplace. After all in 1953, the word DNA was virtually unknown. Today you find it not only in textbooks, but in the popular press and in general conversation. So what this play does, I think, is take us back in our imagination, out of the author's imagination, to a time when it was not so generally accepted that it was the secret of life, that it was an even an important molecule, let alone the basis of evolution. And so we're then somehow transported to understand the ignorance that was current in the day that's so hard for us to imagine now. And I think this way, through this kind of production and presentation, we gain appreciation for the scientific method, the process and the human struggle that's so often…. So, this play successfully in my mind, shows…

Wade:          …So what does it show?

Firestein:          I [wrote] this but I don't know—about technology and the humanity that went into the greatest discovery, I think, of the 20th century. So my first question will, in fact, be to our playwright. It's a really relatively simple question, but I'm going to make it a little complicated; you have some time to think about the answer, okay? So the simple question is, What drove you to write this play? And the complicated part about it is, of course, the character of Rosalind Franklin, who when you think about it, has become, in some ways, an even bigger character and has to come to mean so much more and has become so much more complicated posthumously than she was even when she was alive. She's come to be seen for many things that she apparently might not even thought of herself in fact—feminism, sexism, women in science, which may or may not be have been important to her, may or may not have become important to her had she lived longer. She draws fire from many corners, so it cannot have been a simpler, easy choice to pick this as a character for your play. So why did you do that?

Zeigler:          Oh! I have a pretty simple answer actually, which is that I was commissioned to write the play and I had never read of her, and I was given three female scientists to write about. But the answer does get less simple because after I wrote the draft of this first play that was about three scientists whose lives had nothing to do with each other, and I did some research on all of them, I realized that the part of the play that I thought most compelling was the section about Rosalind Franklin. And so I asked the commissioning theater if they would mind terribly if I rewrote the play that they had assigned to me and this was the theater in Maryland that had wanted their play to have something to do with Maryland, and the other two scientists did. (laughter) So I asked them if I could really take away everything that was relevant about it [to them] and just write about Rosalind Franklin, and they kindly let me do that. But I guess to answer your question, what really drove me, what attracted me to her story is [I think], sort of, precisely what you were talking about; is how, sort of, complicated a character she is. And what I hope or try to convey through this play is that this is not, it's not a simple story of a victim or someone who is [merely] facing the obstacles that the time period had set up before her. I mean, I think that there were both internal and external obstacles that Rosalind Franklin faced. And that to me was what made her interesting, I mean, on top of the fact that she was a part of one of the greatest discoveries of all time. That help[ed] [too].

Firestein:          How much did you have to, I mean, of course you did a significant amount of research, so there's research on the character, but then what she did was rather complicated stuff. So how much of that did you feel you had to know in order to know something about the character? Did that matter? I mean it might not have.

Zeigler:          You mean to describe the science?

Firestein:          Yes.

Zeigler:          I had to know enough to, sort of, let people think that I knew what I was talking about. It was a daunting task because I don't have a science background at all. I was an English major. I never thought I'd write a play about a scientist.

Firestein:          Will you again?

Zeigler:          Yeah.

Firestein:          Helen, did she learn enough to be convincing about the science?

Berman:          Yes, very much. (laughter)

Firestein:          Oh, you can be honest that's all right. (more laughter)

Berman:          I think she did; I think you portrayed the way somebody doing this kind of work would do their work in the lab; maybe too much on the microscope laughter) because, [but] I don't know actually know because back then probably people spent more time using a regular microscope. But I thought that it was accurate, and I thought that perhaps the part about Rosalind with the x-ray camera and the way she was doing the alignment of the camera, unfortunately that was something that we did back then; we aligned cameras in that way, and it was dangerous and I don't think people really fully understood how dangerous it was. I don't however think, as far as I know, she never got a burn because that will be the first sign if she got an x-ray burn, but I think you portrayed that part very well. I think the way in which they were building the model of DNA—Watson and Crick were building the model—was an accurate way of how people fiddle around with models and try to make everything work. And so I think she did a very good job.

Firestein:          Helen, maybe just take a moment here so]—so I don't know how many of you have really seen the play yet; if you haven't [you must]. [But] one of the  that was [mentioned] a great deal in the play is this notion of x-ray crystallography. Without it ever really being entirely explained[I must say] quite remarkably. So Helen is, sort of, well known as being able to communicate difficult ideas in simple ways. So I'm going to challenge her now. (laughter)[I'm going to ask, can you give us,] you know, a very brief premier on x-ray crystallography and why it is so important?

Berman:          So, an x-ray crystallography depends on molecules…

Firestein:          There will be a quiz. So don't sleep [through this]. (laughter)

Berman:          So, molecules, for example, salt, can crystallize in a regular array and all the atoms are lined up in a regular way; and because of that regular arrangement, when you shoot x-rays through the crystal, you get a regular pattern and that pattern lets you know what actually gave the pattern. It isn't a direct picture such as an x-ray of your arm; it's an indirect picture of the contents of the crystal. In the single crystal crystallography, you get individual spots, which allow you to find out what's inside that crystal. In fiber crystallography, you don't have the full three-dimensional order. You have only the two-dimensional order. So you do not get those individual spots and for that reason, the interpretation can be a little complicated. What was raised in the story of DNA is there are two forms of DNA, A form and B form. The A form actually was [far more] crystalline because it actually did have spots. So an expert in x-ray crystallography would want to look to at that picture because it had a lot more data, and that's why she focused on it. The B form [of] DNA was much more hydrated, much more disordered, had many fewer spots, and hence ironically was much easier to[interpret]. So that's why as soon as anyone saw that form, they said, yes, they'd say, especially at that particular time in history it was known that that particular shape, the cross, meant [that] it was a helix. So, x-ray crystallography is a method to find out the detailed structures of three-dimensional molecules.

Firestein:          I guess, if I [can add just one quick thing] to that. In biology we have a kind of a mantra which  says that functions follows structure; that structure dictates function. And that's true from the very molecular, from the very smallest single molecule, all the way up to the whole organism. So the structure of your hands [says] a great deal about its functions. So the difference in the structure of your hand and the structure of your foot tells you a great deal about the function of those two features, and it's just as true of molecules. So knowing the structure of the molecule tells you almost immediately something about its function. It gives you a big clue [to] its function; in this case it was the clue to its [function]. So the very structure of DNA that tells us what the function, why it was so important. Thank you. Thank you. And I had another question. Oh so I have a question for you, [Nicholas]. I went off tangent there and that happens to professors. Sorry. So Anna is involved in making a play that has to deal with very tricky scientific information and making it somehow or another accessible to an audience. This seems to me as what you do for living in [a] slightly different medium. And so what, I guess I just want to ask you about making science accessible to a public that seems to have an appetite for it—we're a full house tonight, we [had a] full house last night—but it's not easy.

Wade:          Well, I don't know if I have any words of wisdom. I'm [probably, sort of, too close to] writing stories [every day] to be [able to give you an] outsider's perspective.

Firestein:          [Is that all you're] going to say, really? (laughter) Well, let me rephrase that: (morelaughter) How about an insider's perspective of all this?

Wade:          Well, I guess [first you have to] decide who [your] likely audience is; so for a general newspaper we assume [our] audience [is].

Firestein:          You don't have to say. (laughter)

Wade:          Well, [informed] members of the public. I think [science] is a slightly specialist interest; it's perhaps a bit like sports. You have people who have some [sort of] special interest in science, so there the trick is to try and get as much of the detail into  [the story as] you can. Ideally, [you're] writing the story on two levels—one level that is [accessible to the] general reader and the other where you're really trying to speak over the readers' heads to scientists, to tell scientists [who haven't] yet read that copy of Nature or Science exactly what's happening. So to do that you have to write in a kind code that slips past the editors who cross it out if [they think] you're trying to put something [too inaccessible] in it. (laughter)

Firestein:          And is that true for interviewing scientists as well? I mean, do you worry about somehow or another failing them or thinking that you failed them, having them think that you failed them, that [they] said something and you've taken it and presented it in a way that you feel is understandable and accessible, but which the scientists then feels is somehow or other not really true anymore?

Wade:          Well, I think the real difficulty for science journalists is to maintain his independence of scientists. Scientists have their own point of view, they have their own paper [that] they're very interested in. [But] their particular view is not necessarily right; many scientific papers are wrong. So you need to try and report around the paper [by talking to other] scientists. And if the paper does turn out to be wrong, you will hope that [in] your original story [announcing] the discovery that you have a ['Yes, but…' paragraph] (laughter) somewhere down [near] the bottom. So it's very hard to be [anything other than] just a sort of conveyor belt  [for good] news about [science.]

Firestein:          So what would've been  [your 'Yes, but…' paragraph] for Watson and Crick? (laughter)

Wade:          Well, [that brings up] the difficulty of trying to, you know, assess science in real-time. So you would've gone around other experts and say, "What do you think of this?" And I guess, well, actually that [one] was easy because you [only] have to look of at  the double helix to realize what a convincing structure it was; so [most] unless experts would have told you this is an important discovery. I'm [ashamed] to say The New York Times was eight weeks late in covering this.

Firestein:          [I think] they had it in an early edition, struck it for some other story they felt was more important, in the later editions; [as I understand it. And then they finally got it back [in] again. So it is even worse than you thought. (laughter) Yes. So what you do, of course, is report primarily on current events. Now here we're dealing with something historical, where there are likely to be, now 50 years later, I suppose, a variety of points [of views,] even from the eye witnesses. So, what do we with that? Do you want to talk a little about the difficulty of that? And then I think [Lynne] can probably maybe add it to, [since she's been] so involved in the history of Rosalind Franklin.

Zeigler:          Sure. I mean, I guess I felt, a dual obligation and one was to tell a story that was mostly or somewhat accurate so that people looking at it from a historical point of view wouldn't think it was, you know, in another universe. But then I think the primary obligation and concern was making it theatrical and making it entertaining; and so those two things, sometimes there was some tension between them. And then I had to, you know, make some decisions. And one kind of interesting one that happened along the journey of the play, I had felt that I had to be very true to the chronology of events for a long time. When this play was produced out in LA, Rosalind Franklin went off to Birkbeck after DNA was discovered, and she died when she died in real life; and for this production, and it was really sort of a [Eureka] moment for me because that second or the, kind of, last quarter of the play was really slowing it down; in these previous productions that felt like kind of an addendum in a way. And so I realized or some director probably along the way said to me, "Well why don't you just have her, why don't you just have it all happened at once." You know, have the story, sort of, culminate at the same time, and so it seemed really wrong to me to do that at the time, but it really helped the play. So it's totally wrong, I mean, it's not at all historically accurate, that part of the play, for instance, but I think it really helps it as a theatrical piece.

Firestein:          Lynne, how do you feel about that?

Elkin:          Yeah, I first got started teaching a little bit of science and tried to cover a lot of women, and I was drawn to the Anne Sayre's original biography of Rosalind Franklin, and if you read that, her book, you get such a sense of Rosalind as a person because she knew Rosalind Franklin very, very well. And [with her] telling these stories of Rosalind, I got [hooked] and the important thing is when I told her I wanted to research this further, the first thing she did, she [said], "You know, after I wrote this, I have been criticized [for saying there weren't any other women at] King's; there's a reason for that—[that] was the impression Rosalind gave me. And then [when] I went there to get the MRC report which [listed the women], which [is how Judson] found it. If you want to do this, it's very important that you read [Judson's] book and you read all these paths to double helix and you find these women and you found [out] what the true story is." And so they gave me [Pauline Cowan Harrison's e-mail]. So I spent a lot of time with these women, I spent a lot of time with Gosling who has abundant information. One of the women at King's most valuable in terms of talking to is [Margaret Pratt Roth] who is the most organized person I've ever met in my life. When she did her Ph.D. in physics she decided she [didn't want to] do it anymore, so she became Randall's right hand person. [If you want to know how Randall got all those grants, it was Margaret Pratt Roth.]

Firestein:          So you have access to all of this detail. How does this [brook] with the production of the play that you watched last night?

Elkin:          Well the play…

Firestein:          Which could no way near contain all that detail.

Elkin:          … Oh absolutely not, but there is an essence of something that is critical, and Anna captures it perfectly, and that is relationship between Wilkins and Rosalind [which] is absolutely [impossible]. In the lab, they were [both still on] the kindergarten level, but in personal interaction, he annoyed her so much because it was set up so the director of the lab had given his project to her unbeknownst to him. So Rosalind didn't know that, Wilkins didn't know she had his project, nobody told Wilkins, nobody told Rosalind. So she's to be working on what she thinks she should be doing, just as Anna has it portrayed; and along comes Wilkins saying, "But that's not the way it should be, we should be talking." And you know, she said and as you accurately portrayed, you know, "I would not have come here to work under somebody or with somebody." And she [worked very well with several] people [but] she [certainly] [would] not be taking any underneath position, so certainly as it is portrayed in [Watson's] Double Helix. So the play shows that interaction magnificently and interviewing Wilkins [was one of the most] fascinating things—and this has nothing to do with the play; I mean, you couldn't have done the play if you accurately portray Wilkins because he was [what some people would call Milquetoast], a really nice warm man, who was uncle Maurice to everybody in the lab; he helped a lot of people. But he was so shy and she was so intense and argumentative, and it wasn't a way that he could exist with anybody. So if the two [of them] talked, and she stared in the eyes, he'd even run away from anybody else looking at him, in [his] general direction. You can just picture [how] impossible [it would be] for them [to have an] entire conversation. And yet he was drawn to her; I think he was drawn to her personally. And in fact, with the exception of Watson, every man [I spoke to] thought she was incredibly attractive. (laughter)

Firestein:          Well, I'm glad he's not here tonight.

Elkin:          Gosling [said that] that, and Geoffrey Brown has said before how beautiful she was. Geoffrey Brown said she was especially beautiful when she was angry—her eyes flashed—it was [the whole group, Don Caspar said so; it was] very consistent. And as far as Watson is concerned, she wasn't his type.

Firestein:          Did you find this surprising when you got into this, that here in the middle of what was supposed to be a scientific laboratory embarked on the greatest project of the 20th century perhaps, and doing maybe the most important piece of work [there was], that actually it was this sort of kindergarten, if you will?

Elkin:          I think [The Double Helix makes that clear.]

Firestein:          Well, that's one book but I'm curious as to what…

Zeigler:          …Yeah, yeah, as someone who had no knowledge before starting to research this play, [of] the story at all, I guess I had imagined that environments in the lab, especially in this context, would probably have been a bit more civilized in certain ways, especially in England. (laughter)

Firestein:          I must say for me as a scientist its remarkable to see that everybody calls everybody [either] doctor, miss or mister; nobody ever uses a first name, rarely ever uses a first name, and yet they act like children most of the time. I think one of the remarkable things that we forget that the play brings home again, however, is how young these people were, when this was going on. It's actually remarkable to think that they were all in their mid 20s to, I think Crick was maybe the oldest at 36, or maybe Wilkins at about the same age. So they were extremely young; and not only were they young, but they were working in a field that was quite young. I mean, not one of them would've called themselves molecular biologists; that's what we call them today—or called the field as molecular biology—but that term all around was not very widely used at that time and I don't think any one of the characters involved here would have characterized themselves as molecular biologist. Is that right?

Berman:          Yeah, I mean, actually what I thought was so wonderful about the play was that—and this comes from my own experience in that—the play points very clearly to the fact that people do science; science is not done by robots who're doing calculations all the time, and using machines and all that; but real science is done by human beings who are often working with other human beings and trying to make things happen and in any laboratory there're going to be all kinds of [soap operas] going on and, I think (laughter), so I think that is actually the way science is done, has always been done; but for whatever reason the public has never understood, well in general I would say, the public doesn't understand that. And it's only now because of plays like this and some other kinds of popular entertainment that we're seeing just now, people are beginning to get the idea that scientists are not some special breed that somehow don't have any feelings and don't know how to. Some scientists work really well with other people, some do not, some are lone rangers, some are really great in collaborations; and I think that's what has to be brought out into the public in order to sort of humanize the whole enterprise, and I think that was very important [part of the play].

Firestein:          I suppose you could make a case—I'm going to try and make this case; you tell me whether it's legitimate or not—that Watson's Double Helix book was in many ways, the first sort of tell-all book about science in labs. And prior to that the I think the view would've been all scientists just wear white coats and go about their business, call each other doctor and mister and miss and turn buttons on machines and things like that, right? But Watson's was really in many ways the first book to show something, some other side of it, good or bad.

Wade:          Well it was a very subtle book and I think it's been widely misunderstood. I mean, it is on the one hand historically accurate, but on the other hand, he was writing it to portray the feelings of a young 22-year-old man and not portray his feelings as the mature [man he was] when he was writing. So he inadvertently gave rise to much of the myth about Rosalind Franklin by emphasizing the importance of this photograph that Wilkins had showed him. And in fact, although [the photograph was] very exciting for him, [it was t]his very dramatic moment, it is important to know what history is being misunderstood. That photograph was very important to Francis Crick, but Crick was not given it by Watson because Watson didn't have it. Crick saw the photograph in an annual report, which was created by the various units in the Medical Research Council (MRC) to prevent duplication between them, and he came [by it perfectly] legitimately. I asked him once if he thought he had come into Rosalind Franklin's information in a fair way and he said, yes he thought it was fair; it was information in the MRC report, [which] was almost identical with what she'd given in the public lecture, which Watson had attended and to which Crick too had been invited, but could not go. So, in a way whole mythology has been spun out of Watson's book by people like, particularly by Anne Sayre who you mentioned, who made the basis for the mythological treatment of this discovery, of seeing or portraying Rosalind Franklin as a wronged [heroine], which is almost certainly not Rosalind's real [role], and I think it stands in stark contrast to the actual historical fact. I mean, if you're looking at this [from] a dramatic point of view, it was a very dramatic event, where [you had] three teams racing to the same discovery, and the odds-makers would have backed Linus Pauling of Caltech to have found it. You had the two English teams, one of [whom, Watson and Crick, had nothing going for them [but their wit]. The other team at King's College–London was riven by these two personal dramas, the first of which was that John Randall, the head of the lab, wanted to grab the DNA problems from Maurice Wilkins, and his first maneuver was to get a new hire and to force Wilkins to give his DNA material, his equipment and even his technician to the new hire, who, of course, was Rosalind Franklin. And she made this very important technical advance in distinguishing the A and B form, but she was highly obstructive in that she refused to discuss anything with Wilkins, who actually [could've] contributed a lot to the problem. She spent most of her time focusing on the [wrong] form as we know now. She failed to understand many things about the structure, and she vastly held up the King's team in the vital end to this race. And the story all ended surprisingly happily in that the Cambridge team found the answer. There were three papers published in Nature, the first by Watson and Crick, the second and the third by Wilkins and by Franklin. So Franklin got to say in Nature, in the same issue as Watson and Crick, everything she knew about DNA including publication of the photograph. So the idea that she was robbed of credit is incorrect. It is also incorrect that she was discriminated against because she was a woman. So [to] come back to Anna's play, although it is dexterous, it ended up by focusing on Rosalind, it inevitably falls into the mythological treatment of this important [discovery] and not onto the historical facts.

So, if I could]raise a further point. Now a play about a historical drama has to have a message that's true, I think. Although the dramatist has every license to invent conversation, to mix up times and places, of course, that is their license. But the bottom line is it has to be true to some message, and I didn't hear a true message in the play; I didn't hear a message that corresponded to anything that I know about this discovery.

Firestein:          Does anybody want to (laughter)… I'm just going to take a short break. (laughter)

Elkin:          As a person whose face is contorted the most… I think that I disagree with you on several points, the most important [of which is that whereas] Watson wrote a magnificent book, I recommend it highly; but it is not an accurate historical portrayal. It is important in terms of Rosalind Franklin as it is what brought her to the forefront. I do not think they have treated her properly, there's a lot of literature about that, lot of people thought that, it is not just "that feminist Sayre". First of all, in terms of did they get this stuff fairly—and Crick has evolved in this; Watson has never wanted to let go of this—you do not hand unpublished data to a competitor, period. I don't care if the MRC report was not marked confidential. That was a mistake and Randall had an absolute fit, and you should go to the archives and read the 50 letters that Perutz received about his little action there about handing that thing over. In the early years, only crystallographers knew that there was something wrong with the three papers. They looked at their brilliant, brilliant first paper—and I want to be clear, I think everybody deserves credit for this; I do not diminish anybody's contribution to this work—and then [they said, "Okay, where's the data?" Anybody [who] knew anything [k]new we need[ed] data for this. Then they look at Wilkin's paper and say, ["The data isn't here"]. Then they look at Franklin's paper, and there's the data but, why isn't she acknowledged? And part of that was because of the snaky deal that was done between Randall, the head of King's, and Bragg, the head of Cavendish, to cover up the very awkward fact that the data had migrated from one place to the other.

And in fact, Rosalind Franklin had written two Acta articles with the double helix spelled out, reconciling the A and B. She did not solve it, she did not do it. She got really close, and she didn't do it, but she deserved to be referenced in their article and Randall had to know that because she couldn't have sent the Acta articles off to be received at Acta by March 6 without his knowing that.

So, I don't think they acknowledged her. If you read systematically, whether we're talking about the Nobel Prize or the 1954 Methods paper—which I'd be glad to quote if somebody doubts what I am saying—anything that is said about Rosalind Franklin, first it is Wilkins and then it is Franklin, and then it is "“but of course we didn't really need that data, we used stereochemistry and models."

I do not think anybody really realized that the model was based on her material until The Double Helix  [gave] a hint of it. And when they were coming up for the Nobel Prizes, the[re was a] famous letter that was reprinted in Science by the team of Jacob and Monod; and Monod wrote to Crick and said "Well there's talk from Bragg, maybe we shouldn't Wilkins the Nobel Prize.  Does he deserve it?" And I have that letter with me,  too, if you want to see that letter. And Crick said, "He definitely deserves it. He did very, very important work getting the structure initially, doing preliminary work and at the end doing brilliant work confirming it. But the actual data we used was that of Rosalind Franklin. Period."

Steve:           We'll pick it up at the beginning of part 2 with Elkin and Wade going at each other a little bit more, and then some more general discussion from the whole panel about the play, Photograph 51 and about the history of the search for the structure of DNA.

Photograph 51 is a new play about Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick, and the race to determine the structure of DNA, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City, running through November 21st. This November 2nd, a panel discussion about the play and the issues it raises featured crystallography expert Helen Berman; biologist and Franklin scholar Lynne Osman Elkin; science journalist Nicholas Wade; playwright Anna Ziegler; and moderator Stuart Firestein. Web sites related to this episode include

Part of this podcast has been transcribed in Rosalind Franklin and DNA: How Wronged Was She?

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article