Achievements Biography

Finding Photograph 51: Rosalind Franklin & the Discovery of DNA

Photo 51 as published in Nature 171

I thought of Rosalind Franklin while reading Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, a compelling novel about the effect of Turner syndrome on a family. Turner syndrome is caused by a chromosome aberration and that led me to wonder what ever happened to the lady scientist who famously helped James Watson and Francis Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA. Like many people, I couldn’t quite remember her name but I knew she’d done something important.

Rosalind Franklin was indeed a lady; born in 1920 into a wealthy British banking family, she had to fight to attend Cambridge and become a scientist. Her work on coal efficiency during World War II “helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibers.”¬†Watson and Crick were aware of her work but downplayed her contribution until recently. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer four years before they won the Nobel Prize along with her lab rival Maurice Wilkins. Not that she was nominated…

Of course scientific discoveries build upon each other, and the quest to understand DNA actually began in 1869 with Friedrich Miescher’s discovery of nucleic acids. By the 1950s, several scientists were honing in on the actual structure of DNA. Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College had refined her study of DNA strands by perfecting an x-ray technique which focused a fine beam of x-rays to reveal the water content of DNA. Watson heard her lecture about this discovery but failed to take notes. Fortunately for Watson and Crick, Wilkins shared her work without her knowledge.

I’d never known what exactly Franklin contributed to the work Watson and Crick were doing. They acknowledge her and Wilkins in their seminal 1953 Nature paper but are quite vague about why, perhaps because they didn’t want to discuss quite how much seeing her work helped. In the same issue, she and her collaborator Raymond Gosling published photograph 51, the visual impetus for Watson and Crick’s double helix theory. Wilkins published a related article as well. As happens with sports, the scientific “scorers” got all the credit while those teammates who put them in scoring position were overshadowed.

Franklin’s comparatively anonymous life is a direct counterpoint to that of Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes and a level of world fame rarely seen. Interestingly, however, both women accomplished their scientific goals by becoming excellent laboratory technicians; supervising assistants and writing papers while refining and improving various methodologies. Curie painstakingly isolated radium; Franklin precisely applied x-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA. The sexism they faced may have compelled both to surpass the skill level of their male counterparts and lead to their crowning achievements. That they did so at a time when both were formally rejected from official academies on the basis of their sex testifies to their focus, dedication and intelligence. Franklin had earned her doctorate before Cambridge revised its discriminatory policies and retroactively awarded women bachelor’s degrees.

Franklin lived in a world that expected women to be educated but not intellectual. Knowledge was fine, exploring and expanding it was not. As a girl who solved math puzzles for fun, she probably could not imagine fitting herself into the social world of contemporaries like Pamela Digby, an intelligent British socialite also born in 1920 who changed the world through a more traditional application of her feminine gifts. The daughter of a baron, Digby lived the high life but aspired to more and achieved it through ambitious marriages, first to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, then Broadway producer Leland Hayward and finally industrialist Averell Harriman. In 1971 she became an American citizen. Eventually, she hosted an influential Georgetown salon that supported the Democratic Party’s move to the center and the election of Bill Clinton as president. He rewarded her with an ambassadorship to France.

Yet Franklin chose a very different path of achievement. During World War II while Digby was socializing and having numerous affairs, Franklin was studying coal structure to find more efficient means of fueling the national defense. overcame those expectations and created a life that was satisfying to her intellectually and personally. A decade after her death, many friends defended her against Watson’s assertion in The Double Helix that she was a mere lab assistant who didn’t know what she was looking at. Anne Sayres wrote Rosalind Franklin and DNA to articulate the exact nature of Franklin’s work.

There are those who argue that Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA was essential and others who disagree. It’s lovely to hope that if she’d been alive, she too would have been recognized by the Nobel Committee with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. What sparks a more important discussion, however, is whether the recognition is more important than the work.

There’s something about anonymity that’s attractive in today’s hyper-celebrity world. The most confident scientists know their value without applause meters, prizes and recognition banquets. Universities and laboratories compete for their services even though they never make headlines. Working without attention allows for freedom of exploration without the pressure of expectations imposed by the outside world. Their work is respected by peers and they are ‘big fish in a small pond.’ That may be a blissful life for many, and the path that Rosalind Franklin would have chosen for herself had she survived ovarian cancer. She was wise enough to leave the poisonous atmosphere at the prestigious King’s College in London for the academic freedoms of Birkbeck College. Her work in other areas continues to influence science, and she may well have been happy for decades whether the whimsical gifts of prizes and fame were bestowed upon her or not.

And yet.

What have we lost by her anonymity? How many women haven’t gone into the sciences because there were no role models, no famous women scientists encouraging them? What discoveries haven’t been made?

It’s crucial for everyone to have role models, and for women in the sciences in particular. Over the last decade, the Royal Society has established a Rosalind Franklin medal for female scientists and the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School has been renamed the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Objective, comprehensive biographies are finally being written for general audiences as well as children. In June of 2012 Franklin’s sister, historian Jennifer Glynn, will publish a memoir that focuses on Franklin’s life and personality.

The resurgence of interest in Rosalind Franklin’s life, career and contributions comes at a time when basic science education is under siege from budget cuts despite the recognition of its importance to our future. Perhaps knowing her story will inspire teenage boys and girls who are passionate about science to pursue their interests despite all obstacles. Perhaps it will also inspire policymakers to remember that skills and intelligence require opportunity to grow. Perhaps male scientists will remember to open the door to female colleagues without outside pressure.

What’s certain is that knowing her story is better than ignoring it.

Suggested reading about Rosalind Franklin: – check out the cool video too!