Bad chemistry

A new play about the discovery of the DNA double helix probes the contributions and character of Rosalind Franklin.

By | November 11, 2010

There's something irresistible about plays that deal with iconic scientific discoveries, especially when controversy surrounds the people who make these finds--just think of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in __Copenhagen__. That play, by Michael Frayn, portrayed seminal discoveries about the structure of the atom made in the early 20th century. The second iconic discovery of that century--the molecular structure of DNA--was every bit as earthshaking, and is the subject of a new play, __Photograph 51__, written by Anna Ziegler.
__Franklin (Kristen Bush) and Donald Caspar
(Benjamin Peltesen) in __Photograph 51____
The drama centers on the story of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin and her role in elucidating DNA's double-helical structure from 1951 to 1953. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for this achievement. Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, but had she lived, there is little possibility that she would have been tapped for the prize. In __Photograph 51__, Franklin is portrayed as a complex person--attractive, competent, self-confident, but also driven and rather imperious. She arrives at Kings College in 1951 with the understanding that she will have sole charge of a project to determine the crystal structure of DNA, just as the molecule's role in the passage of hereditary information was becoming clearer. Ray Gosling, an affable young PhD candidate, who had formerly worked on DNA with Maurice Wilkins, is to be her assistant. Wilkins returns from vacation eager to work with Franklin, not knowing that the head of the department, J.T. Randall, has assigned his project to her. And Franklin doesn't know that Wilkins doesn't know. This terrible misunderstanding sets the stage for the bitter relationship that develops between the two, where daily life in the lab becomes a sad sort of turf battle.
__Wilkins (Kevin Collins, left) and Watson
(Haskell King, right) view photograph 51 in the play__
The titular photograph is a diffraction image taken by Franklin and Gosling of the B-form of DNA and offers a goose-bump moment in the play when Gosling calls Franklin to the light box to show her the picture. In his wildly popular 1968 book, __The Double Helix__, Watson describes his sneaked preview of photograph 51 as the trigger for his eureka moment. A free panel discussion was held the day after the play opened to discuss the production and air some of the controversy that still surrounds the discovery. Panelists included playwright Anna Ziegler; __New York Times__ science writer Nicholas Wade; Rutgers University structural biologist and crystallography expert Helen Berman, and biologist Lynne Osman Elkin, a Franklin scholar who is writing a biography of the researcher. The discussion was moderated by Stuart Firestein, a Columbia University neuroscientist. James Watson was a no-show, and maybe that was just as well. The panel tried to come to grips with just how important Franklin's crystallographic work was in helping Watson and Crick to finalize their model, and whether she got the credit she deserved. Civilized sparks flew between Wade and Elkin about the credit issue. Wade maintained that Ziegler's play perpetuated the popular myth that Franklin was robbed of due credit and discriminated against. (He elaborated these views at length in a linkurl:2003 article; for __The Scientist__.) Elkin countered, saying that __The Double Helix__ was not an accurate historical portrayal of the facts and that Franklin was not properly referenced in Watson and Crick's famous 1953 , an elegant brief with no data. Elkin said that Wilkins suggested removing the phrase "beautiful photograph" from the mention of Franklin in the acknowledgments at the end of the paper.
Some choice scenes from the play Photograph 51.
Written by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Linsay Firman.
Wade insisted that there is no evidence that Franklin thought she had been ill treated: she left the Kings lab because she found it impossible to work with Wilkins, making one wonder how the story would have turned out if the two of them had maintained a good working relationship.
Listen to the entire panel discussion, including playwright Ziegler's explanation of how she researched and wrote the play; an explanation by Berman of macromolecular crystallography and how it was done in Franklin's day; and a discussion about writing inspiring scientific publications. __Photograph__ 51 was produced under the sponsorship of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which, for last 13 years, has partnered with the Ensemble Studio Theatre to support theatrical works that explore the worlds of science and technology. The play opened on November 1 at linkurl:The Ensemble Studio Theatre; in New York City, where it will run through November 21.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Rosalind Franklin Papers (a lesson in lab communication);
[6th February 2007] *linkurl:Double helix double take;
[24th October 2005] *linkurl:Was She, or Wasn't She?;
[7th April 2003]


Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

November 12, 2010

Interesting! I hope that everyone had a nice Veterans Day and I hope that they have a great weekend!
Avatar of: Lewis Jacobson

Lewis Jacobson

Posts: 3

November 12, 2010

The article propagates the common misunderstanding that Wilkins & Franklin were doing "crystallography". They were doing fiber diffraction, which is quite different, since it smears out and hides sequence-specific features of the DNA. The structure of a DNA crystal was not determined until 1980 by Dickerson & collaborators, after it became possible to carry out chemical synthesis of DNA of known sequence. This began the study of sequence-dependent conformational information in DNA.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

November 12, 2010

Watson, by reports, was taking LSD at the time to expand his mind, as was Crick. Yes, he threatened to sue if the journalist published it before his death but he didn't deny it. \n\nReal history is très intéressant.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

November 12, 2010

In other words, I want to know if Rosalind was also taking LSD since the boys were. Was she?
Avatar of: Kenneth Roy

Kenneth Roy

Posts: 11

November 12, 2010

I am old enough to remember the time when LSD became popular as a "mind-altering" recreational drug. It was not in the early 1950s. I recall hearing of medical investigations of LSD as a treatment for various disorders, including alcoholism, in the early to mid 1950s. My memory (which is not clouded by the use of the drug) is that it was not until the 1960s that LSD became a popular and fairly widely used recreational drug. The Wikipedia article on Timothy Leary (which I have just consulted) is in general agreement with my memory. I therefore conclude that it is very unlikely that any of the participants in the Double Helix story could have been using LSD at that time. Ten years later, who knows?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 16, 2010

by the notion that Franklin didn't get due credit because she was a woman. Truthis, if she was a guy, most folks would never have heard of her. Nobody writes plays about Erwin Chargaff. I would go farther and say that she owes her recognition almost entirely to Jim Watson. If he hadn't dissed her so memorably in "The Double Helix", she would never have become the poster child for discrimination against women in science.
Avatar of: peter karuso

peter karuso

Posts: 1

December 22, 2010

The is another great play by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann called Oxygen\n\n

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