Last night I saw the Seattle Repertory theater's production of "Photograph 51," which focused on Rosalind Franklin, the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA. I really enjoyed the production. Most of the credit for this discovery has been attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick and, to a lesser extent, Maurice Wilkins. The three men received Nobel Prize recognition for the work in 1962. Dr. Franklin was not awarded the prize, principally because she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 (Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.) It is not clear whether she would have received the prize, even if she had lived, because of the prevailing male chauvinism of the time. Although I enjoyed the play, one of my big problems with plays based on history, is that it is often difficult what actually happened (this is hard enough when looking through the fog of history) and what is a product of the playwright's imagination. That being said, I think the play stuck reasonably close to the historical account that I read in Wikipedia. One of the things that I really enjoyed was the depiction of Franklin as the crusty curmudgeon that apparently she was. Collegiality, especially in the rough-and-tumble competitive world of research--especially where there are a lot of (mostly male) egos to protect, can get you far. It seems that, in summary, Franklin provided the data, Wilkins provided the collegiality, and Watson and Crick provided the vision and chutzpah. Too bad they couldn't all play nice with each other. But, in the end, what is really important is the DNA. Personally, I find it breathtaking that we have progressed from the structure of DNA, through recombinant DNA, to the sequencing of the human genome, to the increasing mechanization and digitization of DNA analysis, all in the space of a lifetime. My lifetime, that is.
Scot Bastian Ph.D. is a scientist and artist who lives in Seattle WA.