Field of Science

Iconic images of science, #1: Rosalind Franklin's DNA photograph

It occurred to me that a reasonable history of modern science could potentially be depicted by some of the iconic images that charted and drove its progress. Whether it was Robert Hooke's pioneering drawings in "Micrographia" or Copernicus's heliocentric model as depicted in "De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium", drawings, photographs and graphs have captured some of the key moments in the march of science. I thought it would be interesting to occasionally post an image from one of these moments along with a brief, entirely personal and selective commentary.

Photo 51: Rosalind Franklin's astoundingly clear x-ray diffraction photograph of DNA taken in 1952 which showed the telltale double-helical signature of DNA. The photo received perhaps the ultimate pop cultural accolade when it became the basis for "Photograph 51", a star power-driven play with Nicole Kidman playing Franklin.

This photo is fascinating in many ways, perhaps most controversially because Franklin's supervisor Maurice Wilkins (who she saw not as a supervisor but as an equal) showed it to James Watson without his knowledge: in Watson's account, when he saw it his "jaw dropped and pulse raced". The pieces swirling around in his and Francis Crick's mind fell in place and the rest was history.

The image is also very intriguing because it points to one of the great what-ifs of scientific history. Franklin was undoubtedly the best DNA crystallographer in the world and there was nothing anywhere else that came close to the clarity of this work, so the tantalizing question is: how soon would she have hit on the idea of a double helix herself? My guess is, not too soon. As wronged as Franklin was by the male establishment and history, she was stubborn and defensive and not very open to other fields, especially chemistry and model-building, the two fields which mattered the most for nailing down the solution to the puzzle. Feeling besieged by the men around her, she was loath to collaborate. Much more than any raw brilliance, Watson and Crick's biggest quality was their willingness to do whatever it takes and beg, borrow, ask - and steal - from any field necessary to crack the structure. In the parlance of Isaiah Berlin's parable, Franklin was a hedgehog, Watson and Crick were foxes.

If she had lived Franklin *should* most definitely have shared in the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the helix: whether she *would* have is another of the what-ifs of history, although given the male domination of the prizes it seems unlikely. Sadly history silenced the question: Franklin died in her 30s of cancer, an iconic figure to generations of future scientists and female scientists in particular.


  1. I don't see why Wilkins was included for the Nobel. Why not Jerry Donahue, for alerting W&C that the nucleotide bases exist in the keto rather than enol form? Their base pairing model wouldn't have worked otherwise.

  2. Agree. Also Chargaff who had proposed the purine:pyrimidine constancy.

  3. While the "photo" was important, I don't think it is as important as people may think. The numbers are the real important part here and as we all know Franklin had already presented them a few years earlier at a conference. You can only build the model by the help of those numbers not the photo itself. The photo has symbolic importance.

  4. Disagree on Erwin Chargaff. He had no idea what his ratios meant or implied.

    In this he was exactly like Franklin, a virtuoso of his applied science, content to beaver away, tilling his furrow, with no inclination to look at the big picture and speculate about, oh, oh, let's call it THE
    chemical problem of the 20thC.

    Neither of them would have lowered themselves to 'playing with models' the way W&C did.

    But Chargaff was really potentially close to figuring out the base pairing problem [just with the experimental data he'd amassed]. But he couldn't think outside the box.

    Btw, both of them [Franklin & Chargaff] looked down on W&C-for not being chemists, like they were, and for pumping both of them for their data! The irony is that by NOT being chemists, they were free to use any knowledge/techniques which could prove useful, including their imaginations.

    Of course the structure would have been articulated in the 1950's, but not with the explosive impact of W&C's April, 1953 Nature paper. Rather, it probably would have dribbled out in 3-4 more tightly scoped papers, with the integration performed after the fact.

    ps love 'Curious Wavefunction'-one of the best science blogs, EVAH


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