Photograph 51

By JIM NICHOLS

Women’s History Month allows us opportunities to identify individuals unknown to many. Scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) is such a person, and her story contains elements of competition and sexism that sound familiar to modern readers.

When most people think of “science,” they note the big three: biology, chemistry, and physics. There are subdisciplines of each of these and Franklin was one of the early “molecular biologists,” investigators at the interface of all these three combined.

In the middle of the 20th century, this molecular biology discipline was just developing and much of the experimental effort concerned the molecule DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). There was strong suspicion that DNA was fundamental to genetics and the questions asked how the chemical structure of DNA was related to the amazing likenesses and differences we call genetics. 

Rosalind Franklin

There were scientists across the globe engaged in feverish (and often, secretively competitive) research because it was clear that such a connection between DNA and genetics was a monumental understanding. Among the competitors were American James Watson and the Brit Francis Crick. History notes that Watson and Crick left their Cambridge, England lab one afternoon in 1953 as usual to go to the local pub (the “Eagle”). Upon arriving there, they announced “We have found the secret of life.”

As often happens in science, some individuals do most of the experimental work and others tie things together; both are critical contributions. Most agree that Watson and Crick contributed little experimental information, but they were rewarded for “connecting the dots” that so many before them had proposed. After Watson and Crick, others built on their conclusions in important ways. Watson and Crick, along with Maurice Wilkins, received the 1962 Nobel prize for their DNA structure work. 

Experiments in the 1940s and early 1950s had led to multiple proposals as to the chemical structure of DNA. Using various techniques to measure the quantities of elements and their positions in the molecule, models were drawn or constructed (using a scientific version of Tinker Toys). Still, experimenters were not convinced that the true DNA structure had been described. More information was needed, and Watson, Crick, and others knew it. 

Rosalind Franklin received her PhD. In physical chemistry in 1945. A Notting Hill, England native, she initially worked in a lab in Paris. She was fundamentally involved in developing a method of bouncing x-rays off molecules to investigate their chemical structure. After short years in Paris, she moved to Kings College in England to join Maurice Wilkins in the race to identify the chemical structure of DNA. Reports indicate that Wilkins and Franklin did not have a smooth relationship. There have been numerous notes indicating male chauvinism within the lab. Among the problems was Franklin seeking more experimental independence and Wilkins wanting more of a support role from her.

Photograph 51

As Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and others worked steadily to decipher the DNA structure, Franklin added the ability to produce actual x-ray generated images of molecules, including DNA. During her work, Franklin captured an image that proved to be the final piece of the puzzle. Dubbed “photograph 51”, the photograph showed with amazing precision aspects of the molecule that made all the other explanations tie together and make sense.

At that point, historical confusion arises. Franklin was not working with Watson and Crick; she was working in Wilkins’ lab. The question focuses on how and when Watson and Crick saw photograph 51. There are reports that Wilkins may have shown the photograph to them without Franklin’s knowledge. Others report that they saw it in a public setting. The truth is unclear.

What is clear is that the three males received the Nobel prize and Franklin did not. Nor was she mentioned during the proceedings. She died at age 37 of ovarian cancer five years before the awarding ceremony. Her death may have been prompted by her career working with x-rays before radiation caution was high. Posthumously awarding the Nobel prize was not possible at the time.

Scientific research is a cooperative activity. It is performed, however, by humans who carry other instincts in addition, some of them negative. In this case we see competition intruding on cooperation and clear mid-20th century sexism lurking in the background. The result was a lack of appropriate recognition for a woman who was responsible for what the archivist at King’s College called “. . . arguably the most important photo ever taken.”

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

Rosalind Franklin photo credit: “Rosalind Franklin” by Faded Times is marked with CC PDM 1.0.

“Photograph 51” image submitted by Jim Nichols

One comment

  • What an interesting article! I had never heard of Dr. Franklin, but I admire her tenacity in working in a male environment where she was not fully appreciated.

    Like

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