The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Charlene Sayo Headshot

Making Things Right for DNA's "Dark Lady" Rosalind Franklin

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

This year, DNA celebrated its 60th birthday. Not surprisingly, stories exalting James Watson and Francis Crick, the official -- on record anyway -- trailblazers of what is arguably the 20th century's biggest scientific breakthrough were cranking out non-stop from the annals of the internet printing press. Of course, like any discovery, such as the colonization of new lands, controversy abounds. Often it is the founding explorer that gets the upper hand in cooking history books, removing names, and spinning details.

At the centre of this science fiction thriller is crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. Depending on who's talking, she is the heroine/victim/villainess of the story. Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer -- some say caused by overexposure to X-rays -- four years before Watson, Crick and her lab partner, Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for their DNA research.

"Since 1953 to about '62, they wrote her out of the story," says Lynne Elkin, professor Emeritus at California State University-East Bay. "They wrote her out of history. There's no excuse for it anymore."

July 25 would have been her 93rd birthday, and unlike Watson and Crick -- who were based at Cambridge, a rival institute to Franklin's King's College -- there is uneasiness about her role in the discovery of the DNA structure. Sure, a few memes were posted around and Google honoured her with a doodle, but not much else was done to venerate the "Dark Lady of DNA."

Elkin, a New Yorker with a "tough ol' broad" whim about her, taught biology before retiring, as well as a course about women in science. She argues that when it comes to Franklin, "women are angry, there have been a lot of women in science whose credit has been stolen from them."

Rosalind Franklin was a British biophysicist with a chemistry background whose incomparable work on X-ray photos unlocked the mystery of the double helix structure. Her four years' worth of research landed in the hands of Watson and Crick without her knowledge, let alone her approval. Sadly, myths of her steely personality and squabbles with Wilkins often overshadow her scientific contributions.

For Elkin, Franklin's personality has been distorted and makes for great literary fodder.

"She was impatient with people who didn't know what they were doing, who acted like they knew what they were doing. Her work ethic was reportedly so intense she scared people in the lab. But she was also so thoughtful and friendly that people loved her.

"It's a funny combo," says Elkin.

In the 2003 documentary, "The Secret of Photo 51," biophysicist Sir Aaron Klug, 1982 Nobel Prize winner and Franklin's last collaborator explained that, "She was a very tough person. Single-minded, spoke for what she believed and could, in fact, be quite fierce. If she had been a man, it would have gone unremarked."

What has not gone unremarked are the achievements of DNA research since Franklin's time. In the last 20 years alone, the science of DNA has led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep, deciphering criminal evidence, and the rise of the Human Genome Project. DNA research has also disturbed what we know about ourselves and our ancestors, including that most of us have Neanderthal DNA. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

There's of course the engineering of genetically modified food, and, notwithstanding the ethical conundrums, the possibilities of resurrecting extinct species and producing Neanderthal-human hybrids.

After World War II, fresh from the Manhattan Project, breaking the structural code of DNA was at the forefront of the scientific body politic. The study of life was not only the pursuit of philosophers, but on the petri dishes of every scientist gunning for a career legacy. Wilkins, a physicist and molecular biologist at King's College in London, England, was part of the Manhattan Project.

Reeling from its devastating aftermath, Wilkins pursued the mystery of DNA, and, for a while, headed the research at King's. In 1951, an ambitious Franklin armed with her education from England's best schools was hired as a crystallographer to help push the research along. Although untrained in crystal diffraction, Franklin learned the difficult technology quickly and by March 1953, produced the infamous Photo 51 -- the clearest photo of the double helical backbone of DNA at the time.

Shortly after, Franklin left King's for Birkbeck College where she studied tobacco mosaic virus as a senior scientist until her death. In his Nobel speech, Sir Aaron Klug credits Franklin for setting "the example of tackling large and difficult problems. Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion."

Watson, Crick and Wilkins did not acknowledge Franklin their 1962 Nobel speech.

In his 1968 best-selling memoir "The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA," James Watson depicts himself as the victor of the DNA race, and Franklin as the villainess who stood in his way. Published 10 years after Franklin's death, Watson included a thoughtful epilogue, noting that because of his youth, his "initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal... were often wrong," admitting that "the X-ray work she did at King's is increasingly regarded as superb... realizing years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking."

Before the memoir was sent to print, Harvard University Press pulled the plug, refusing to publish it.

Many of Watson's colleagues criticized him, including Crick who, in a letter to his former lab partner, reprimanded the book as "misleading and in bad taste. It does not illuminate the process of scientific discovery. It distorts it."

Maybe Watson really did feel remorse over his maltreatment of Franklin, but whatever his motivation, the damage to Franklin's reputation had been done.

There's the quiet attack on her appearance. "By choice, she did not emphasize her feminine qualities," Watson wrote. "She was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes.

"This she did not."

Most upsetting is Watson's conclusion that Franklin "was incompetent in interpreting X-ray pictures. If only she would learn some theory."

Of the last attack, because of how novel DNA research was at the time, Elkin asserts, "For Watson to criticize her for not figuring [it out] is ridiculous!" Considering the limited knowledge and technology, "no one person had the training to figure this out. Rosalind came as close as any human being could," Elkin explains.

Moreover, Elkin contends, Watson's statements "demeans [Franklin]. By saying that she didn't know what she was doing...was an excuse to use her data."

But all is not lost. Despite not winning the Nobel Prize, since the prize is not awarded post-humously, Franklin's scientific work has been recognized through a legion of scholarships and awards for women in science. She has been endowed with honorary degrees, with laboratories and entire schools of medicine bearing the famous photo 51 as their seal, have been named in her honour.

Playwright Anna Ziegler wrote the 2008 play "Photograph 51" and an asteroid discovered in 1997 was named after Franklin.

And yet, there is still reservation among women scientists. In researching this essay, I approached three local women scientists who, although passionately sympathetic in person, did not want to go record about Franklin.

Why the reluctance? What are the risks of correcting an injustice involving one of the greatest scientific findings of the last century?

According to Elkin, if women want to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field like science, they can't criticize two of its biggest icons.

"I think it would be fair way to do it, but no one wants to. I don't want to take it away from Wilkins, he started the whole thing. He sunk his teeth in it and did not let go. The reality is, he deserves credit... After Rosalind left, he worked with a lot of fine people who helped confirm the structure.... Watson and Crick deserve credit for figuring it out, and [Franklin] deserves credit for doing the research which was very difficult."

Which leads to the question, why should the scientific community, let alone the general public, care?

I press for an answer.

"Because," Elkin declares fervidly, "credit should be given to the person who did it. And you shouldn't allow other people to appropriate other people's data and get away with it."

Enough said.

Sponsored Feature