Photograph 51 – Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

There is a play on the West End at present, “Photograph 51”, starring Nicole Kidman. She plays the role of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who did ground breaking work on the structure of DNA in the 1950s. Kate Mulcahy, writing in The Telegraph on 15/9/15, tells Franklin’s story thus: “Marginalised during her research in the 1950s, ostracised by male peers and ultimately overlooked by the establishment, Franklin’s data was used without her permission and her contribution to science was drastically under-acknowledged.” Mulcahy claims that Franklin is “the latest forgotten female scientist to be thrust into the limelight” and that she is “a quintessential example of the maligned woman in science“. In similar vein, Nicole Kidman has said she wants to “shine a light on the role of Franklin and women like her whose quiet hard work has been overshadowed by pushier men“. And again, Anita Singh, writing in The Telegraph on 13/9/15, opined of Franklin that she “played a key role in discovering the structure of DNA while working at King’s College London, but was effectively written out of history.”

I beg to differ. There is something more insidious at work here. It is claimed that Rosalind Franklin is forgotten. But that is odd. Surely she is a household name? And yet if she had been called George Smithers, a man, you would indeed never have heard of him, unless you were a specialist in the field. We, non-specialists, have heard of Rosalind Franklin precisely, and solely, because she was female.

It is often the case in science that several people, or several teams, are racing to answer a certain question. Generally only one crosses the finishing line first. He, she or they get the accolades. Blokes who finish second are forgotten. It’s tough, but that’s life. And yet it is often the case that the winning team will be influenced by the work of others in developing their ideas. Well, of course – that’s how science works. That’s why people publish papers in journals – to communicate with others in the field. So it may very well be that the winners have made good use of the work of the poor saps who came second, and the latter get no credit for being 99% of the way to the answer. It’s a hard life, but there it is. Move on, chaps. Onwards and upwards!

Unless, that is, the person who came second was a woman. Then we are permitted to take a different view. Then it is unfair, it is sexism.

The Telegraph article claims that Franklin was “left out of the Nobel Prize to which her work was essential“, thus giving the impression of outrageous unfairness. Yet the author of the article will be aware, but did not see fit to mention, that Franklin died four years before the Nobel for DNA was awarded in 1962, and that the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously. This is not honest journalism; it is propaganda. It intentionally manipulates public perceptions by creating a false impression,  reinforcing the feminist oppression myth.

But let me reprise the actual history of the discovery of the structure of DNA. (See, for example, Matthew Cobb’s “Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code”, Profile Press 2015, or his Guardian article).

When Rosalind Franklin joined King’s College, London, in late 1950 she was already an expert in the use of X-ray diffraction for the purposes of determining crystallographic structure. From the start there was a misunderstanding between her and an existing member of King’s, Maurice Wilkins, as to whether Franklin was working under Wilkins or independently. Much has been said about the difficult relationship between Franklin and Wilkins. What is not disputed is that they did not get on. This was unfortunate given that they were both working on X-ray crystallography at the same college. Some commenters have attempted to portray this dysfunctional relationship as due to Wilkins’ authoritarian or domineering attitude. This seems to be far from the truth. From all accounts Wilkins was a most diffident chap, shying away from confrontation – whilst Franklin was a much more forthright character. Cobb quotes Rosalind’s friend Norma Sutherland as recalling, “her manner was brusque and at times confrontational – she aroused quite a lot of hostility among the people she talked to, and she seemed quite insensitive to this.” Arguably, Franklin found it necessary to be forceful as a woman in science in those days. But it is more likely that she was simply fiercely protective of her independence and had no great desire to collaborate with Wilkins. Rather oddly this communication breakdown led to parallel working on the same subject within the same college (culminating in a pair of independent papers in the 1953 issue of Nature, one by Wilkins and co-authors, and one by Franklin and co-author).

Francis Crick and James Watson, at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, were also trying to figure out the structure of DNA. Unlike Wilkins and Franklin they were not doing experimental work but were attempting to figure out the structure purely theoretically. In 1952 they embarrassed Lawrence Bragg, the Director of the Cavendish, by presenting a model of DNA to Wilkins and Franklin which the latter were able to immediately dismiss as obviously incorrect. Note the inevitable academic rivalry which would exist between Cambridge and King’s College London. Consequently Bragg temporarily banned Crick and Watson from working on DNA. However Bragg changed his mind when his great rival in the USA, Linus Pauling, also published an obviously incorrect model of DNA. Knowing that Pauling would soon realise his error, but now knowing that his rival was hot on the trail of DNA, Bragg authorised Crick and Watson to recommence work. In just a few frenetic weeks they had the correct DNA structure complete with a ball-and-stick molecular model.

So how did they do it? Well, the idea of a helix being involved was in their minds from the start, simply because it had already been established by Linus Pauling that a helix (the so-called alpha-helix) formed the backbone of proteins. Their method of working was to attempt to build stick-and-ball models of the right atoms and chemical groups, constrained to have the correct bond angles and bond lengths. The process was hampered by not knowing what all the bond angles and lengths actually were. Theoreticians need data. Crick and Watson needed X-ray diffraction information. Looking at what was available they discovered work by the English crystallographer W.T.Astbury from five years earlier, which was a start. (Incidentally it was William Astbury’s X-ray work in the 1930s which assisted Pauling’s discovery of the protein alpha-helix. So, in William Astbury we have one of the myriad of genuinely unknown and unsung heroes who contribute to scientific progress – most of them male).

But Crick and Watson needed more, and better, X-ray pictures. They knew they needed Maurice Wilkins at King’s. Unexpectedly Wilkins turned out to be very amenable, and even agreed that a helical structure was probably involved right from the start (in 1951). However, according to James Watson’s account in “The Double Helix”, Wilkins’ difficulties with Franklin had reached the point where she had tried to insist that he stop work on DNA. To keep the peace, Wilkins had handed over to Franklin all his best crystalline samples of DNA, thus hampering his own work.

Let’s make one thing clear: Rosalind Franklin was a first-rate X-ray crystallographer. She was certainly one of the best, if not the best, in the field at the time – though Wilkins was comparable. It is also true that the famous “photograph 51”, which forms the title of the play, was pivotal in consolidating the idea of the helical structure. The key to photograph 51 was not just good X-ray technique. The photo was taken using a new crystalline form of DNA, the so-called B form, created under conditions of full hydration. Franklin was the first to identify the B form of DNA (though I’m not clear if she or Wilkins made the sample). There are several issues here which are often elided in popular accounts.

Firstly, recall that Crick and Watson had been working on the assumption of a helical structure for some time, so photograph 51 was confirmation rather than revelation.

Secondly, photograph 51 was published in the famous 1953 issue of Nature under joint authorship: Franklin and Gosling. Who was Gosling? Well that would be Raymond Gosling. Contrary to almost every popular account it was not Franklin who did the hands-on work to produce photograph 51, it was Raymond Gosling. But we need not concern ourselves with Gosling. He was just some male research student whom we can ignore completely. (The poor chap was rather buggered about. He initially had Wilkins as a supervisor, but was transferred to work with Franklin, only to be passed back to Wilkins again when Franklin left King’s). Of course, had Franklin been a man and Gosling a woman, it would be Gosling who would be the focus of all this fuss. As it is, Gosling doesn’t matter at all. Please forget I mentioned him.

Third: it was Maurice Wilkins who first showed photograph 51 to James Watson (though Wilkins himself, with co-workers, would soon produce essentially equivalent pictures). Rosalind Franklin was keeping this latest result to herself at the time. That part of the popular account is true.

Finally, the really crucial issue is this: Franklin was vehemently opposed to the hypothesis of a helical structure for DNA. Be aware that the interpretation of X-ray diffraction patterns is a very tricky business. Do not imagine they are anything like a medical X-ray. They are, in effect, an encrypted version of the physical object photographed (technically they are related to the object’s Fourier transformation). Franklin failed, at least initially, to correctly interpret her own X-ray photos. Her experimental technique was impeccable, but her mathematical analysis was no match for Francis Crick.

Crick and Watson had shared with Franklin their hypothesis of a helical structure, but she had been against the idea from the start. Crick and Watson were of the opinion that a helical structure could be seen even in Franklin’s earliest X-ray photos (using the A form of DNA), even though the interpretation in that case was fraught. When Watson – and later Crick – saw the B form photo, the helical structure leapt out at them. Franklin, however, failed to see it – initially.

Earlier the same day that Wilkins showed Watson photograph 51, Watson had had yet another argument with Franklin regarding the helical hypothesis. She was even more dismissive of the idea than ever. So convinced was she that her own work disproved the helical hypothesis, rather than supporting it, she even went to the lengths of posting a notice in the King’s college physics department saying, “it is with great regret that we have to announce the death, on Friday 18th July 1952, of DNA helix”. (The note was a jibe at Maurice Wilkins. The reference to ‘Besselised Injections’ refers to the Bessel functions which are used in the mathematical interpretation of X-ray pictures).

However, photograph 51 was not enough. Crick and Watson needed numbers. They needed data which would constrain key bond angles and lengths. Much has been made of how Crick and Watson acquired this key data. It originated from Franklin, of course. But it was not stolen. Actually Franklin had made this data public in a talk in 1951 which Watson had attended. Stupidly, though, he failed to note down the key data. But Franklin had also written the data in a report to Max Perutz at Cambridge, who had passed it, in February 1953, to Lawrence Bragg, who in turn gave it to Crick and Watson (since Bragg was now keen to beat his old rival Linus Pauling to the big prize). This was what Crick and Watson had been waiting for: the Rosetta Stone which permitted them within a few weeks of intense work to produce a complete model of the DNA molecular structure.

There was no impropriety in what Crick and Watson did, though their failure to tell the King’s people that they were using their data was impolite. More importantly there was no sexism in this behaviour. It was irrelevant that the data originated from Franklin; it could equally well have come from Wilkins who was duplicating the same work.

The key issue, though, was the interpretation in terms of chemical structure. Here Francis Crick’s greater mathematical sophistication came up trumps, though Franklin realised just too late that Crick and Watson had been right all along. To quote Matthew Cobb,

Franklin’s laboratory notebooks reveal that she initially found it difficult to interpret the outcome of the complex mathematics – like Crick, she was working with nothing more than a slide rule and a pencil – but by 24 February (1953), she had realised that DNA had a double helix structure and that the way the component nucleotides or bases on each strand were connected meant that the two strands were complementary, enabling the molecule to replicate. Above all, Franklin noted that ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’, thereby showing that she had glimpsed the most decisive secret of DNA: the sequence of bases contains the genetic code. To prove her point, she would have to convert this insight into a precise, mathematically and chemically rigorous model. She did not get the chance to do this, because Watson and Crick had already crossed the finishing line – the Cambridge duo had rapidly interpreted the double helix structure in terms of precise spatial relationships and chemical bonds, through the construction of a physical model.

In other words, she ran the men a very close race, but finished second. The reason she was second was that she was slower to interpret her own data than they were, partly because her maths was less strong and partly because she failed to appreciate the value of model building. To quote James Watson, “affecting Rosy’s transformation was her appreciation that our past hooting about model building represented a serious approach to science, not the easy resort of slackers who wanted to avoid the hard work necessitated by an honest scientific career“.

Again quoting Matthew Cobb, the dénouement was…

In the middle of March 1953, Wilkins and Franklin were invited to Cambridge to see the model, and they immediately agreed it must be right. It was agreed that the model would be published solely as the work of Watson and Crick, while the supporting data would be published by Wilkins and Franklin – separately, of course. On 25 April there was a party at King’s to celebrate the publication of the three articles in Nature. Franklin did not attend. She was now at Birkbeck and had stopped working on DNA.

What we have here is an everyday story of scientific folk. Well, OK, perhaps the importance of the subject was hardly “everyday”, but the nature of the groping  towards the truth, and the interactions between the personnel, is fairly typical. There is no compelling reason to put a gendered spin on the matter.

In part the claims of gender bias have arisen as a result of the Nobel Prize, but Franklin was no longer eligible, being dead, so that is a completely spurious perspective. There is no way of knowing what the Nobel Committee would have decided had she still been alive. Without any doubt Franklin made a major contribution to settling the structure of DNA. Indeed, she would have solved the problem on her own eventually, had she not been beaten to the answer. Had she been alive, the Nobel Committee’s problem would have been that no more than three people can be awarded a given Nobel. Crick and Watson’s claim was beyond doubt, so Franklin would have been in competition with Wilkins – especially since they produced essentially equivalent work. Who knows what the Committee would have done. One option would have been to award  Crick and Watson the prize for Physiology or Medicine, and award Franklin and Watkins the prize for Chemistry. But who knows.

What I emphatically disagree with is Kate Mulcahy’s claim that Rosalind Franklin should be a feminist icon. I don’t agree that anyone should be a feminist icon. Such a thing is fundamentally divisive. I’m happy for Franklin to be regarded as a scientific icon – that, after all, is what she would have wanted.

Anita Singh quotes Nigel Franklin, the scientist’s nephew, as saying that his aunt has been misinterpreted in the play. “I think there were little things that annoyed her, like the fact that when she was at King’s the common room was men only. But she got on with her work and she would have been astonished at being considered a feminist icon. She didn’t think of herself as being different for being a woman. I don’t think she felt, other than those social things, in any way held back. It wasn’t something she felt, that she was hard done by. The feminist movement has picked her up as an icon and used her in that way. But as far as she was concerned, she loved her work – she was brilliant at what she did – and I really, really don’t think that this feminist business that’s attached to her was an issue for her at all. Even if she had lived to see Crick and Watson collect the Nobel Prize, she would not necessarily have felt hard done by.”

But Kate Mulcahy will not accept that. Any woman insisting that she is not a victim must be persuaded that she is. Where Kate Mulcahy is coming from is betrayed by her straying into women-in-STEM at the end of her article. “Men outnumber women in many university science courses“, she tells us. More propaganda, Ms Mulcahy?

Yes, it’s true that men outnumber women in some university science courses. But Ms Mulcahy is either ignorant or being disingenuous. The following facts for year 2013/14 may be obtained from Table 13 of the Higher Education Statistics Agency web site,

  • Combining all science-based subjects, the number of women graduates exceeds that of men at first degree level by 7%, whilst there is parity at postgraduate level. Contrary to popular belief, men do not dominate in sciences as a whole due to women’s dominance in biologically based subjects.
  • In all non-science subjects, the number of women graduates exceeds that of men at first degree level by 58%, and by 56% at postgraduate level.
  • Non-science subjects account for 60% of all awards.
  • Over all subjects, the number of first degrees awarded to women exceeds that to men by 33% (and by 34% at post-graduate level).
  • Men dominate women in just five subject areas: physical sciences, maths, computer science, engineering and architecture. These five subjects together account for just 17% of the total qualifications awarded at first degree and postgraduate levels combined.
  • Hence, women dominate men in those subjects which account for 83% of qualifications gained. Generally this dominance is emphatic.
  • In terms of class of first degrees attained, women obtain 28% more first class degrees than men and 43% more upper-second class degrees. Men get more third class degrees.

There are vast resources being extended to encourage more women in STEM, not least by Athena Swan but also by the hordes like Kate Mulcahy who are interested only in advancing women with no regard whatsoever for the other sex. As far as I am aware, there are no initiatives to address the male disadvantage which is emphatically apparent in the above statistics. Instead the persistent focus of attention, effort and funding is to encourage more women into STEM, the dwindling island of 17% of qualifications in which men remain dominant. That women are dominant, often very dominant indeed, in 83% of cases is implicitly regarded as fine and dandy. This partisan focus on the educational attainment of the sex that least requires assistance is presented to us as being the pursuit of “equality”.

And this is the reason that the play “Photograph 51” and the feminist narrative around Rosalind Franklin is so pernicious. It isn’t really about Rosalind Franklin. It isn’t  really about science. It’s all part of maintaining the myth that men are powerful and privileged and women are oppressed. And this myth provides their power, the power to promote female advantage – not equality, but advantage – the advantage that is apparent in the endless talk of women-in-STEM, despite the above factual position.

But it’s worse than that. The feminists are gradually re-writing history with cold blooded and malicious determination. In doing so they are stealing men’s birthright – the fact – and it is a fact to a very good approximation – that men built the modern technological world. Bit by bit, the public will come to believe that actually women did most of these things, and men just pretended it was them – the liars. And what few things were done by men would have been done by women if only men had not oppressed them so. Boys will come to believe that not only are men vile brutes, and always have been, but that they are also useless and liars. The long term goal of the feminists’ programme of historical revisionism, together with saturation shame-bombing, is to crush men psychologically. The truth will not be heard, it will be expunged. This blog, and many blogs and vlogs like it, will not be heard against the more powerful voice of a West End play (or a major film, e.g., “Suffragette”). And the feminists start their indoctrination at primary school – or before.

I write these things for the tiny number of people who remain intellectually unassimilated. But can any of we few turn back the tsunami of misinformation or precipitate an awakening from the mass psychological delusion?

4 thoughts on “Photograph 51 – Rosalind Franklin

  1. Pingback: Alessandro Strumia’s CERN Talk | The Illustrated Empathy Gap

  2. Pingback: Ada Lovelace – ‘the most overrated figure in the history of computing’ | Justice for Men & Boys

  3. CitymanMichael

    We are gradually turning the tide – eg. this past year or two, I notice that men’s rights are being aired on mainstream television & radio which would not have happened 5 years ago. I think about news programmes where the likes of Martin Daubney & Milo Yianopolous are invited. Prior, time after time, there were only feminist commenters on these programmes debating men’s issues.
    Onward & upwards!


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