Published on:

A new play gets most things right, but not all

My Times column on Nicole Kidman’s performance as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51:

It’s not been a good fortnight for actresses and scientific accuracy. Last week Emma Thompson told the BBC that the world will warm by 4C by 2030 — about 3.5C too high, according to the experts. This week Nicole Kidman, whose performance as the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 begins its run on Monday, said she hopes to “put the spotlight” on the “inequality” of Franklin not getting the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA. “She was not nominated. That’s not right.”

This is a pernicious myth, no less wrong for being well meant. Franklin was not nominated for the Nobel prize in 1962 because she was dead. The rules of the prizes are clear: they are only granted to the living. Had she lived it is highly likely she would have been nominated. Given that the discovery of the double helix in February 1953 was one of the greatest moments in science — up there with gravity, relativity and natural selection — it is crucial we do not let actresses rewrite the history.

Ziegler’s fascinating play (which I have read but not seen) gets most things right, within the limits of artistic licence, but makes one central mistake to compound Kidman’s.

What actually happened, and who was robbed? The double helix story had a single eureka moment, as dramatic as when Archimedes leapt from his bath: a human suddenly saw that the secret of life is a linear digital code written in a four-letter alphabet and capable of automatic replication.

That human was James Watson and it happened at about 10am on Saturday, February 28, 1953, in Cambridge (the play says it was snowing, in fact it was a fine spring day).

But, of course, Watson was standing on the shoulders of others. He was working on a model rebuilt in the preceding days by Francis Crick, whose realisation that the structure must consist of two chains running in opposite directions had been a crucial breakthrough.

But Crick stood on other shoulders. His “antiparallel” insight was derived from data in a report written by Rosalind Franklin about her X-ray work on DNA, data that she had not interpreted that way. Crick should probably not have been shown the report by his supervisor, Max Perutz (there was a huge debate about this years later between Perutz and John Randall – it ended inconclusively), but Franklin had presented the same data in public.

Franklin was standing on other shoulders as well. Her best X-ray photograph, No 51, the one that screamed “double helix” to Watson when he eventually saw it, had been taken nine months before by her graduate student, Raymond Gosling. True, she had made vital suggestions for improving Gosling’s technique, but he had been photographing DNA, in hydrogen gas, for some time before she even joined the project.

Gosling stood on other shoulders too. He had been hired and trained to make the X-rays by Maurice Wilkins, his first supervisor, and it was under Wilkins that he had first achieved an earlier image that showed DNA to have a regular structure.

Wilkins relied on Rudolf Signer for his DNA sample, and on William Astbury for pioneering x-ray photography of DNA. And so on back down the chain. As with all Nobel prizes there is a terrible unfairness in singling out three individuals to receive all the glory, leaving their sherpas, colleagues and erstwhile friends fuming in the dark.

Of the names above, the Nobel committee chose Watson, Crick and Wilkins. Had Franklin been alive they would have almost certainly chosen — so those protagonists I have spoken to agree — to give the medicine prize to Watson and Crick, the chemistry prize to Wilkins and Franklin.

The person most hard done by remains Raymond Gosling. In those days, the Nobel committee was in the habit of overlooking graduate students. Albert Schatz saw his supervisor get the prize in 1952 for his discovery of streptomycin while Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars, was overlooked in favour of her supervisor in 1974. Unlike those two, who rightly complained, Gosling assured me before his death this year that he never minded.

The reason nobody is writing plays about Gosling’s neglect is, let’s be blunt, because he had a Y chromosome. As the play emphasises, Franklin was a woman in a man’s world. She was also Jewish and from an upper-class background. On all three grounds she felt sensitive and unwelcome, it seems, at King’s College London.

The play correctly identifies that the worst problem was her relationship with Wilkins. He was shy and inscrutable, she prickly and aloof. Their boss John Randall had sown resentment between them from the start by hiring Franklin on the promise that she would take over the DNA project, while telling Wilkins he could work with her. The breakdown of relations between these two brilliant people was a human tragedy, because it gave their Cambridge rivals a chance to seize the prize.

However, it’s not quite that simple. When Crick and Watson first tried to solve the puzzle at the end of 1951, it was a humiliating failure and Franklin told them so, in front of Wilkins, Gosling and others. At which point, Franklin and Gosling became the only scientists in Britain working on the structure of DNA, a most unusual privilege in science. Wilkins, Crick and Watson were told to keep out.

This situation lasted for about a year and only ended when Franklin decided to leave King’s and Randall told her to hand the DNA project back to Wilkins. That was how photograph 51 came to be in Wilkins’s hands — given to him by Franklin via Gosling — when he unwisely showed it to Watson in January 1953.

The play unforgivably omits that Franklin was leaving, implies photograph 51 was new and says Gosling “slipped” it to Wilkins. This is unfair to Gosling and Wilkins. The blunt truth is that Franklin had a unique opportunity to become the most famous scientist in history bar none, for most of 1952. Because she was cautious and disliked speculation or model building, and perhaps because of her reaction to the prejudice of others, she let it slip through her fingers. That’s a tragedy, not a travesty.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times