Woman who helped discover DNA wows London

Woman who helped discover DNA wows London

For the Times of Israel October 23 2015 by Jenni Frazer

Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman was once memorably described by a somewhat over-excited British drama critic as “pure theatrical Viagra.” Now she’s brought her starry presence to the London stage once again and is bringing to life the story of a heroine of Anglo-Jewry, scientist Rosalind Franklin.

In “Photograph 51,” by Anna Ziegler, Kidman’s role as Franklin, who died of ovarian cancer in 1958 aged just 37, has revived the tragic debate over Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Four years after her death, her colleagues Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Watson is the only one of the four scientists still alive.

The “Photograph 51” of the play’s title refers to an X-ray picture taken by Franklin but made public by Wilkins to Watson and Crick – without her permission or knowledge – to show the workings of the molecular structure of DNA.

Her supporters contend that the key paper presented by Watson and Crick, while Franklin was still alive in 1953 — drew so heavily on her work that she should have received proper credit. She never did and Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.

Rosalind Franklin wasn’t just a clever Jewish woman, but was a member of one of the most influential and best-connected Anglo-Jewish families. Her father, Ellis Franklin, was a merchant banker whose marriage to Muriel Waley cemented a union of what became known as “the Cousinhood,” the Anglo-Jewish equivalent of “Boston Brahmins.” Ellis Franklin’s uncle was Herbert Samuel, British Home Secretary during the First World War and later the first High Commissioner for Palestine. One of Ellis’s sisters married Norman Bentwich, attorney-general in the British Mandate of Palestine. Members of the family held key roles in numerous Jewish communal organisations.

During the early years of World War II, Ellis Franklin asked for his daughter’s help in trying to save Jewish refugees from Europe. Franklin and her schoolfriend, Anne Piper, were recruited. Piper recalled that they went “to work with the German/Jewish Refugee Committee in Woburn Square, and it was there that Rosalind and I spent many hours during the weekends and in our school holidays helping to sort out endless papers, and trying to impart some kind of order in dealing with the vast numbers of heart-rending pleas for help.”

Ironically, Rosalind Franklin almost certainly received more attention after her death than during her lifetime. And the process started with James Watson’s own 1968 account, “The Double Helix,” in which the shy and prickly scientist is portrayed as spiky, difficult to work with, and a blue-stocking uninterested in her own appearance.

A very different account is given by her younger sister, Jenifer Glynn, in her 2012 book “My Sister, Rosalind Franklin,” where she writes of a lively, curious woman who had spent time living in Paris and acquired a sophisticated, pared-down French wardrobe.

In 1976 the American writer Anne Sayre published a controversial book claiming that Franklin was the victim of sustained male chauvinism. And not just chauvinism, but antisemitism. Angela Creager, writing in American Scientist of a third 2002 book, by the writer Brenda Maddox, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” says that Maddox “explores the issues posed not just by Franklin’s sex, but also by her Jewish, upper-class background.”

“In a national context in which science seemed to provide an arena in which class did not limit one’s achievement, Franklin’s speech and formality struck some colleagues as aristocratic and outmoded. And although the realm of scientific research was a refuge for Jewish intellectuals, it was not completely free of antisemitism. The perception of Franklin as a ‘difficult woman,’ in other words, reflected cultural animosities that surpassed mere sexism,” writes Creager.

Of her sister’s post-mortem legacy, Jenifer Glynn, a clear-sighted historian presently living in Cambridge, wrote, “In the speeches at that Nobel ceremony, Crick and Watson notoriously and shamefully did not mention Rosalind, and Wilkins’s tribute was slight, but who can say what might have happened if she had lived? She went on to lead a team at Birkbeck College for the last years of her life, and there has recently even been a suggestion (in the biographical memoir of Wilkins for the Royal Society) that if she had missed a share in the 1959 Nobel Prize she might well have shared [Aaron] Klug’s Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1982.”

But Glynn, wife of a distinguished Cambridge Jewish biologist, Professor Ian Glynn, is quite clear on one issue, that of her sister’s place as a feminist icon.

‘She was a scientist whose achievement should simply be judged on its own terms, not as a conscious blow for the rights of women’
“Many have now taken over Rosalind’s defence, among them feminists who write in a way that would have appalled her. For she was a scientist whose achievement should simply be judged on its own terms, not as a conscious blow for the rights of women,” she wrote.

Among the symbols of recognition accorded to Rosalind Franklin since her death in 1958 is an English Heritage Blue Plaque outside the home where she lived in Fulham. There is a plaque at a pub near the Cambridge college where Franklin studied.

In a paper she wrote for the Royal Society in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of her sister’s death, Glynn noted, “Newnham [Franklin’s college] now houses graduates in the Rosalind Franklin Building — but in 1958 neither St Paul’s nor Newnham thought of giving her an obituary notice in their magazines. Buildings and laboratories now carry her name in Cambridge, London, Holland and Belgium, and a whole university has adopted it in Chicago. There have been prizes, fellowships, books, radio broadcasts, television programs, plays, projects for films — I am constantly coming across more.”

In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Glynn said that although she has read the text, she had not been to see Anna Ziegler’s play.

“It seems to highlight a feminist view of the problems of a woman in science, but does not give a true picture of Rosalind’s character. Rosalind was a fine and enthusiastic scientist, and was also, as I tried to show in my book, an interesting and lively person,” said Glynn.

Intriguingly, in her loving memoir of her sister, Glynn touches lightly on a remarkable might-have-been – Rosalind Franklin toyed with the idea of going to work as a scientist in Israel.

Glynn wrote that in 1953, “She decided to take a long journey before settling down to her new problem at Birkbeck. This time, breaking new ground, she decided to visit scientists and family connections in Israel… Impressed by the Israeli scientists, and feeling happy and at home with various friends and relations, Rosalind was appalled by the extreme Orthodox Jews and their way of life, and shocked at the brash attitudes she found in Tel Aviv.”

But she found soulmates at the Weizmann Institute, writing home to her family, “I find more of interest and more people ready to talk interestingly than in any lab I’ve ever visited… From a purely scientific point of view I should be very tempted to seek work here – for the climate too, which at present is wonderful – but it is socially a far too small and isolated community.”

Photograph 51 is playing at London’s Noel Coward Theatre until November 21

  • 24 October, 2015