TELEVISION NOVA pays tribute to unsung heroine of DNA

DataStream Published:

By Frazier Moore Associated Press NEW YORK The 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNAs double helix structure is being observed this year. Perhaps heightening the celebration is the fact that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who shared a Nobel Prize for this scientific revolution, are around for the occasion. But the birthday party has a dark side and a tragic absentee, as this weeks NOVA documentary explains. The missing person is Rosalind Franklin, who, despite her extraordinary accomplishments, was kept an outsider in the mens world of science. She is the unsung heroine of DNA, just as she has been for a half-century. Rosalind Franklin could be said to be Watson and Cricks unknowing and unrecognized collaborator, according to the film, Secret of Photo 51, airing 8 p.m. Tuesday on PBS. A London-born mathematics whiz, Franklin by age 30 was already a leading expert in the field of X-ray crystallography. Using X-rays to capture a photographic echo of a molecule, she was hard at work at Kings College in London in the early 1950s, laboring to capture an image of DNAs structure. Although deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) had been connected with heredity as early as 1944, for the next few years its molecular structure remained somewhat of a mystery. An even greater mystery was how one of these molecules could carry a living things genetic endowment and precisely duplicate it. Researchers, including Franklins rivals Watson and Crick, suspected that answering the structure question would clear up how DNA works. They were right. With the discovery that the DNA molecule forms a double helix resembling a ladder twisted into a spiral the manner in which DNA could replicate itself became clear. Providing key evidence with its telltale X-shaped pattern: Franklins photo No. 51, made during 100 hours of X-ray exposure in May 1952. The following January, without Franklins knowledge, Wilkins, her fellow crystallographer at Kings College, happened to show photo No. 51 to Watson, who was working with Crick at Cavendish Laboratory in nearby Cambridge. Two weeks later, Watson and Crick built their soon-to-be-famous model of DNA: a double helix. Then they invited Franklin to Cambridge to review the model. She never suspected that her unpublished research had been drawn upon to build it. Watson and Crick published their bombshell findings in the April 25, 1953, issue of Nature. Also in that issue, performing a supportive role, was an article by Franklin though she had written it a month before seeing their model. The discovery won Watson and Crick the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology, which they shared with Wilkins. But Franklin, who, even before the Nature article had left Kings College and moved on to significant research into the polio virus, died in 1958 at 37, from ovarian cancer. The New York Times obituary, which noted Franklins widespread recognition for her research on virus structure but made no mention of her work with DNA, was just four paragraphs long. Brenda Maddox, who wrote the 2002 biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (on which the NOVA film is partially based), says Franklin died with no sense of having been edged out in a race that only Watson and Crick knew was a race. And, ironically, Franklin might never have won even limited glory if not for her defamatory treatment by Watson in his 1968 best seller, The Double Helix. In this highly personal account of his discovery, Watson characterized Franklin as a hard-bitten opponent, slamming her as ill-tempered, incompetent and unattractive a woman who had to go or be put in her place. Creating something of a backlash, this portrait of Franklin was disputed even by other veterans of the boys club culture that had undercut Franklin during her miserable Kings College years. Vittorio Luzzati, her collaborator from an earlier, happier time in Paris, marvels at how The Double Helix was what brought Franklin public acclaim. If we talk about Rosalind, he says in the film, it is because of the way Jim Watson offended her memory. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, Secret of Photo 51 covers a lot of ground in its hour, including re-enactments and on-camera interviews with other participants in the DNA drama, including Wilkins. Also helping tell the story is Maddox, who takes pains to establish Franklin as someone far greater than The Woman Who Didnt Get the Nobel. She was cheated of the only thing she wanted, says Maddox. But that was only a chance to finish her work. In my view, her lost prize was life. On the Net: www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/photo51/ EDITORS NOTE Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.