The woman who was cheated of DNA glory goes deeper for Pamela Rabe
It can be mesmerising to see the beauty of what is known, rather unimaginatively, as Photo 51. The photo – resembling a monochrome, mandala-like artwork – was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is also a pivot around which Anna Ziegler’s 2008 play Photograph 51 revolves.
At one point the central character, English scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin, stands with the photo in front of her face, staring into its mysteries and potential revelations. Well might we all: as Pamela Rabe notes, this photo is about the secret of life – and the play, which Rabe is directing for the Melbourne Theatre Company, explores that secret at both the scientific and more personal, philosophical level.
The photo, taken in 1952 as part of Franklin’s investigations, is an X-ray “diffraction image” of crystallised DNA. It was vital evidence to identify the structure of DNA – but, in what remains a controversy, Photo 51 was shown without Franklin’s knowledge to another scientist.
The 1962 Nobel prize for medicine went to James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins – the man who had shared the photo. The three men – and the play tells us a lot about men of those days – used the image to develop their prize-winning chemical model of DNA while Franklin, with quiet, professional dedication, had unknowingly persevered with her own meticulous work on the problem.
Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 when she was 37 – five years after Crick, Watson and Wilkins published their findings in Nature, and four years before they received the Nobel. In the play, these men and two others convene with Franklin to discuss “her place in history”. In one unbroken, energetic act, the play slips between locations and scenes; our imaginations conjure the worlds evoked by the words, especially Franklin’s. Read More