Photograph 51 is the title of a play on the London stage throughout autumn 2015. The play explores the controversy surrounding Rosalind Franklin and her contribution to the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. The discovery of DNA has been widely discussed since then, not least in three biographies about Franklin and autobiographical accounts by the other three protagonists in the ‘ DNA drama’: Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins. It was Watson’s account of Franklin in The Double Helix that sparked the initial controversy and continues to frame much of the subsequent debate.
It makes for a compelling story. Franklin is the ‘Dark Lady’ whose work is appropriated by her colleague Wilkins, who struggles to work with this difficult woman. He hands her data (the eponymous photograph) over to the rival Cambridge research team of Watson, the ambitious young American, and Crick, the brash self-confident arriviste in the field of molecular biology. They use the photograph to confirm their theory that the structure of the DNA molecule is a double helix and beat everyone else to claim the discovery.
The photograph itself is an x-ray image of the structure of a fibre of DNA that was taken by Rosalind Franklin and her crystallography team at King’s College, London. It is also so much more. Photograph 51 is confirmation of the symbol of life itself: the DNA double helix. For some it’s also a symbol of questionable ethics – even betrayal – amongst scientists. For others it signifies a woman’s lot in the man’s world of 1950s science.
Dig deeper and you find that it’s also about science itself: Crick and Watson, the ‘top down’ theoretical model builders with their inspired intuition, versus Wilkins and Franklin, the experimentalists carefully building on the foundations of their data. It’s about a chemist, a biologist, two physicists turned biologists and the emerging field of molecular biology.
The story of these characters is fixed in a moment in time as much as the DNA crystal captured in photograph 51. Except the story didn’t end there. As letters and documents in the archived papers of all four scientists reveal, they continued to cross paths socially and scientifically for years.
Franklin continued her very successful career as a researcher, moving to J D Bernal’s crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College London. She headed her own research team working on the tobacco mosaic virus until her death from cancer in 1958. She and Crick corresponded professionally and she developed a friendship with him and his wife.
Wilkins continued his research into nucleic acids as a biophysics professor, becoming Director of the MRC unit at Kings College London. In his autobiography he noted that Crick, Watson and he were not awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovering the structure of DNA, but “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material” – a body of work spanning 10 years.
He remained a committed anti-war campaigner throughout his life and was President of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. As the collection of postcards from Crick in his archive show, Wilkins attended Crick’s wedding and they remained on very good terms.
Watson moved into to science administration in the 1960s as Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and as Head of the Human Genome Project for the National Institutes of Health. Despite his early antipathy towards Franklin, Watson was happy to share useful information with her in a friendly correspondence about her virus research.
Crick continued to work in molecular biology until the 1980s then changed fields again, spending the last 25 years of his life studying neuroscience and consciousness at the Salk Institute.
Some stories are so compelling they enter the realms of mythology. There’s no doubt that photograph 51 was an important part of the discovery of the structure of DNA – the fact that versions of the image can be found in the papers of Franklin, Wilkins and Watson is evidence of that. Since its creation it has gained layers of meaning that go far beyond its scientific significance. Fortunately you can still find the realities behind the myth if you know where to look.
The digitised papers of Franklin, Wilkins, Crick and Watson are all freely available in the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource.