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Double Helix, Double Standard

Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 participates in a vital lineage of storytelling that revisits the people and events leading to the discovery of the DNA double helix.  Working at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick solved the riddle of DNA’s molecular structure in early 1953, ahead of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, who were themselves investigating the same problem from King’s College London.  The terrain of these tectonic events is not uncontested, and the play inhabits a freer, more uniquely theatrical space than that of definitive chronology. In the world of Photograph 51, the fragile seams between memory and history come unbound, and the historical record is allowed to live side by side with conjecture and points of contention.

The crucial contributions that Rosalind Franklin made to the double-helix discovery might well have been consigned to history’s dustbin altogether were it not for the outrageously misogynist portrayal of her in James Watson’s sudsy memoir The Double Helix, published in 1968.  Watson, a graduate of the University of Chicago, published his defamatory account of Franklin knowing full well that she had died of ovarian cancer 10 years earlier, and so could raise no objections to his convenient version of events.  Dubbing her “Rosy” throughout the book, Watson dipped his pen into an ample inkwell of sexism to compose such classic passages of chauvinist condescension as his grievance that Rosy “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… So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers…”1

When he wrote his tell-all, Watson was a professor of biochemistry at Harvard, but Harvard University Press refused publication of The Double Helix owing to objections raised by key players portrayed in the book—namely, Crick and Wilkins, who denounced their former colleague’s manuscript as irredeemably self-glorifying and wildly fictionalized.  A commercial press advanced the book for publication, and it went on to become a bestseller.

When it was suggested to Rosalind’s mother that Watson’s sensationalizing account at least ensured that Rosalind would never be forgotten, her mother answered forlornly, “I would rather she were forgotten than remembered in this way.”2

Reaction against Watson’s hit job blossomed into an impressively long arc of conversation around not only Franklin’s groundbreaking work but the treatment of women in the sciences more generally.  Anne Sayre, a personal friend of Rosalind, published a concise biography of Franklin in 1975 that reassessed the events chronicled in The Double Helix from her friend’s point of view.  Francis Crick published a book in 1988 from his own perspective.  Journalist Brenda Maddox wrote a thoroughgoing, arguably more objective biography of Franklin in 2002.  Maurice Wilkins penned an autobiography in 2003. And in 2012 Rosalind’s younger sister by 9 years, Jenifer Glynn, published her own biography of her sister, who was by now much debated and discussed.

In the absence of a definitive narrative from Rosalind Franklin herself, we’re always, in the end, only seeing her through others’ eyes, catching glimpses between the latticework built by others’ interpretations.  The frustration we might feel in disentangling the “real” Rosalind from these clashing points of view is only fitting, since her own work with DNA so regularly hit up against the specter of unknowability. The experiments that Franklin oversaw sought to reveal the dimensions and shape of the DNA molecule using X-ray diffraction.  Franklin would mount a DNA sample in front of an X-ray tube, then subject the sample to a stream of X-rays for a very long exposure time, up to 100 hours. During that time, the X-rays would diffract off the molecule and leave traces on a photographic film placed behind the sample. Franklin would then study the traces left on the film in order to calculate backwards, and deduce what three-dimensional shape might have caused that particular pattern of traces.  With her diffraction photographs, Franklin was only ever seeing incomplete facets of the double helix, distortions and fragments from deflected illuminations. She sought to map out DNA then much the way we’re forced to seek out a sense of her now—through traces and fragments. In both pursuits, we’re straining to make out the contours of a portrait without ever quite getting at a conclusive answer.

It’s understandable that the stakeholders in the discovery of the double helix were invested in offering competing accounts.  No one wants to live in infamy. In his autobiography Maurice Wilkins confessed that he felt the need to tell his side of the story because “Rosalind’s male colleagues were to some extent demonised” in all the back-and-forth.  “The most prominent demon,” he lamented, “seemed to be me.”3  Such insistent attempts to correct the record are evoked in Ziegler’s play with the way the characters quibble over facts and story points.  They jockey for control of the narrative, in art as in life.

But then, jockeying for narrative control is a response that has come to be central to our collective mythologizing around DNA’s powers.  Exalted by Crick and Watson and so many others as “the secret of life,” DNA inspires fear and fascination because it dangles before us the disquieting prospect that we might not be as in control of our own destinies as we’d like to think we are.  In the face of DNA’s workings, which are nothing short of miraculous, we struggle to wrest back some possibility for self-determination from the terrifying sense that who we are may have already been predestined. This emerges as an important tension proposed by the play: the tension between our power to author our own outcomes and our powerlessness to undo a bad hand we’ve been dealt.  The constellation of experimenters peopling Photograph 51 yearn to write their own stories; but they must also confront moments when fighting the inevitable is no longer any use.

The architecture of fate implied by DNA may elicit our apprehension, but we are equally in thrall of what it implies about potential, about blueprints of possibilities that do or do not get fully realized.  This, too, we hear about in the play: missed opportunities and roads not taken, to include the roads we actively choose never to take.

The twists and turns of the double helix’s discovery are so densely laden with what-ifs and what-might-have-beens that one becomes positively heartsick to consider all the wasted possibilities.4  What if Rosalind and Maurice had just found a way to talk things through?  What if she had just had a colleague at King’s College who had encouraged her to realize her potential?  “She needed a collaborator,” said her former colleague Aaron Klug in an interview decades later, “and she didn’t have one.  Somebody to break the pattern of her thinking, to show her what was right in front of her, to push her up and over.”5

The even larger what-if inherent in this line of questioning is, what if women were encouraged to excel in the sciences?  What if the thumb were taken off the scale? Why is it that, between 1901 and 1951, when Rosalind started her work on DNA, only 3 out of 169 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences were women?  Why is it that by 1951 women comprised not even 1% of the Fellows of the Royal Society, and that up until the end of the century women comprised not even 4% of their total membership? Sociologist Sandra Hanson sums the problem up succinctly with the title of her book Lost Talent: Women in the Sciences.  What if the talent were embraced and nourished, and not lost?

Lost in the deification of Watson and Crick are, all too predictably, contributions from women who facilitated their path to glory, and not only Rosalind Franklin.  Francis Crick’s wife Odile, herself an artist and fashion designer, drew the famous barbershop-pole diagram of the DNA molecule that appeared with the landmark essay by Watson and Crick in the April 25, 1953, issue of Nature, which announced their discovery of DNA’s configuration.  Odile’s drawing became one of the most reproduced images in 20th-century science.  Watson’s sister Betty did them the favor of typing up their scrawled manuscript, which made the publication of their breakthrough possible.  Such invisible work from women relegated to the wings of heroic science warrants corrective unearthing, and Rosalind Franklin has come to stirringly signify the erasure and thwarted potential of many more than just herself.

The Franklin family has at times been a bit stunned and mystified by all the unexpected attention.  Tracing the evolving versions of her older sister that she has watched play out in books and on television over the years, Jenifer Glynn writes that “Rosalind became a symbol, first of an argumentative swot, then of a downtrodden woman scientist, and finally of a triumphant heroine in a man’s world.  She was none of these things, and would have hated all of them.” Glynn goes on to assert that her sister was “simply a very good scientist.”6

In her exacting standards and eye to detail, Rosalind Franklin was also, most certainly, an artist. Time and again, Photograph 51 links Franklin’s work as a scientist with the exquisite labor of artistic creation.  It’s an important linkage, given that Franklin is often faulted in science histories for lacking the creativity to intuit the double helix’s shape, despite having gathered so much critical evidence.  Insisting on the parallel between Franklin’s science and art, the play echoes an obituary tribute from pioneering physicist J. D. Bernal, with whom Franklin worked. Bernal wrote, “Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.  Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs. She did nearly all this work with her own hands.”7  In the lab Franklin was indeed said to have hands that were “golden,”8 with the precision and steady confidence of a true sculptor.

At one point in Ziegler’s play, Rosalind is slyly compared to Hermione, the grossly wronged queen of Sicily, in a passing reference to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  At the end of Shakespeare’s play, Hermione is presented as a statue.  Like the Hermione of Shakespeare, the Rosalind of Ziegler’s play is an unjustly treated heroine given to us in the form of an artistic creation.  But this Rosalind is herself an artist and author, too. Early on we hear her assert, “I don’t like others to analyze my data, my work.”9  Minus the mention of “data,” it’s a sentiment I’ve heard uttered by absolutely every playwright I’ve ever met.

“It’s a tricky thing about time, and memory,” Don Caspar says in the play, “whole worlds of things we wish had happened are as real in our heads as what actually did occur.”10  The same can be said of the imagined world on a stage.  It gently places what might have happened on equal footing with what actually did, making one as real as the other.  Out of the tangled knots of the double helix’s variant strands, Anna Ziegler grants us the space in Photograph 51 to dream of what might have been for Rosalind Franklin, while we also weigh what was.

See Photograph 51 on Court’s stage—performances continue through February 17. Get tickets →

Photo of Chaon Cross, Nicholas Harazin, Alex Goodrich, and Nathan Hosner from PHOTOGRAPH 51 by Michael Brosilow.

1. James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980) 14.
2. Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) 312.
3.  Maurice Wilkins, The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003) x.
4.  For many more what-ifs, see Jenifer Glynn, My Sister Rosalind Franklin (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012) 121, and Maddox 140.
5.  Horace Freeland Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology (Plainview, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 1996) 148.
6. Glynn 160.
7.  J. D. Bernal, “Dr. Rosalind E. Franklin,” Nature 182 (1958): 154.
8.  Maddox 143.
9. Anna Ziegler, Photograph 51 (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2011) 13.
10. Ziegler 58.

Posted on January 24, 2019 in Productions

1 response on “Double Helix, Double Standard”

  1. Lev says:

    The DNA model of Watson and Crick is wrong: the two chains are not intertwined but go in parallel. For more details, see my article “DNA: the Double Helix or the Ribbon Helix?”
    Attention: my model radically differs from a well-known Side by Side model.

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