James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins made history as the scientists credited with discovering the double helix structure of DNA, the molecular basis of life itself.
They were awarded a 1962 Nobel Prize for this momentous achievement. But at the time it was not widely known that a female scientist also had a pivotal role in their research. She was Rosalind Franklin, the subject of the award-winning 2008 play “Photograph 51” by Anna Ziegler.
The title of “Photograph 51” (which opens at Seattle Repertory Theatre on Wednesday, under Braden Abraham’s direction) refers to an X-ray photograph of a DNA molecule taken by Franklin, a brilliant young British researcher using the specialized technique of crystallography. Though Franklin never knew it, her image helped Watson and Crick discern and theorize the double helix construction.
Why was Franklin not initially given credit for this? Why was she later disparaged by Watson? In retrospect, how important was her contribution?
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As a budding playwright in her 20s, Ziegler avidly pursued answers to those questions. “I had no science background, but was asked by the (Maryland) theater company Active Cultures to write a play about female scientists,” she recalls. Suggested candidates were environmentalist Rachel Carson; African-American biologist Roger Young; and Franklin.
“They were all interesting, and I sort of gamely wrote a play interweaving their lives. But during a reading it was apparent that the Franklin section was the most compelling. I’d never heard of her before, and her story was a real eye-opener.”
Franklin most appealed to Ziegler not as an unsung feminist heroine, but “a fascinating and complicated woman, the kind of character one can really sink one’s teeth into. I was very interested in how she got in her own way, and dealt with the obstacles in her path.”
Franklin came from a prosperous Jewish family that encouraged her interest in science. She earned a chemistry degree at Cambridge University, then won research fellowships at a time when women were largely shut out of the top science professions.
“The play begins as Rosalind arrives in London, after she’s been in France for some years researching coal molecules,” explains Ziegler. “She wasn’t used to working in this kind of old-boy environment of British laboratories. Paris wasn’t like that at all.”
Franklin’s difficult partnership with Wilkins, as they looked into the structure of DNA, was a focal point for Ziegler. “It’s really at the heart of the play. They got off on the wrong foot immediately. She was told she’d be in charge of her work. He was told he’d be her superior. She was very headstrong, and didn’t want to work with him. In the play, he realizes he’s in love with her, which she can’t handle.”
Also portrayed are the brash American researcher Watson and his partner Crick, an Englishman, who were (unbeknown to Franklin and Wilkins) pursuing similar research in another lab at the time the crucial photograph was made.
Says Ziegler: “Rosalind didn’t immediately see a double helix image in her work. The play’s version of what happened, which is the prevailing version, is that Wilkins got so frustrated with their failed collaboration, in a naive moment he showed the image to Watson, who made use of it. It was an unintended betrayal, and Wilkins felt guilty about it the rest of his life.”
Franklin died young (at 37) of ovarian cancer in 1958. “Nobels can’t be given posthumously, so there’s a lot of debate about whether she’d have been on the podium with them, had she lived. In the play I stuck to versions of events imparted to me by her brother Roland Franklin and other relatives. They say she never even knew her work was used, and never felt betrayed.”
But controversy brewed after Watson’s tell-all memoir, “The Double Helix,” came out in 1968. While noting the importance of her photo, Watson disparaged Franklin’s scientific abilities, her unglamorous work attire, her allegedly ill-tempered disposition. He also made the chauvinistic crack, “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.” ( Wilkins also tarred Franklin during their work together — calling her in letters a “dark lady,” exuding “the smoke of witchcraft” — but at least mentioned her name in his Nobel acceptance speech.)
Brenda Maddox’s recent biography “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” gives a more generous, faceted account of Franklin’s strong personality — and her scientific career, which also involved coal, carbon and virus research, and co-authoring many scientific papers.
Franklin’s double-helix legacy still is disputed. After a 2011 performance of “Photograph 51” at the World Science Festival, “there was a panel of scientists, and it was incredible to see these guys duke it out!” Ziegler reports. “Some men defended her, and Watson was leveling one insult after another at her.”
For her part, Ziegler didn’t want to frame Franklin as a victim, or “take away from the genius of Watson and Crick. I don’t think of this as a particularly feminist play.”
But she adds, “It is about a woman who was subject to a lot of sexism, and thrived in a really impossible environment. “ In order to succeed in that sphere, Ziegler suggests, Franklin became defensive and guarded in ways “that could make her hard to collaborate with. It was a vicious cycle.”
“Photograph 51” has been successfully staged in New York and around the U.S., and Ziegler is penning a film version (with Rachel Weisz attached to star).
“There have been some great talk-backs after the show, about whether there’s been real progress made by women in science,” says Ziegler, whose new play, “The Minotaur,” just debuted in Washington, D.C.
“Some say the field is totally transformed now; others say it’s the same as in Franklin’s day. I’m certainly happy to have something I wrote spark discussion about that.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com