In March 1953, Maurice Wilkins of the King’s College London announced the departure of his colleague Rosalind Franklin in a private letter to his friend Francis Crick, a scientist at the rival Cavendish Laboratory. "Our dark lady is leaving us next week," Wilkins wrote.
At the time, Crick and James Watson had already completed a model of the structure of a DNA molecule – a double-helix – using data from Franklin’s research that Wilkins had provided without her knowledge. Watson and Crick published their model the following month in the journal "Nature."
The groundbreaking discovery – which helped explain how genes replicate – earned Watson, Crick and Wilkins the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Franklin had died of ovarian cancer four years earlier, at age 37, never knowing the direct role she played in one of the most influential scientific discoveries of all time.
Now, with celebrations under way across the globe to mark the 50th anniversary of the double helix, Franklin is getting some posthumous fanfare.
In fact, few people would have recognized Franklin’s contribution had it not been for Watson. His best-selling 1968 memoir, "The Double Helix," is studded with unflattering descriptions of Franklin – a molecular biologist and crystallographer who was the rare woman, and certainly the rare Jewish woman, in her field. Its publication made Franklin a feminist icon.
"What I’d like to see changed, and what the revolutionary side of me would like to propose is calling it the Watson-Crick-Franklin model," said Lynne Osman Elkin, a professor of Biological Sciences at California State University, Hayward. Elkin appears – along with Wilkins and several of Franklin’s illustrious former collaborators – in "Secret of Photo 51," which airs April 22 on the science program NOVA.
The documentary by Gary Glassman is loosely based on Brenda Maddox’s 2002 biography, "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA" (Harper Collins). Glassman’s title refers to an exceptional X-ray photograph Franklin took of a DNA molecule, which provided Watson with the key to the double-helix puzzle.
The NOVA special sticks to the science of Franklin’s story. It highlights "the specific injustice of not being recognized for her contribution to the structure of DNA," Glassman said by telephone from Rhode Island. The injustice, the film suggests, was the result of personal incompatibility between Franklin and Wilkins, professional rivalries, class conflict and gender and religious prejudice in the "old boy" environment of King’s College.
Interviews with some of Franklin’s other colleagues – whose ranks include the Nobel Laureate Aaron Klug – attest to fruitful collaborations and a successful career as one of the foremost experts in X-ray crystallography.
Maddox’s biography paints a rich personal portrait of Franklin as an impassioned and meticulous scientist, Francophile (she spent three years as a researcher in Paris), mountaineer and strongly identified Jew.
"I’m always into childhood and background, how people came to be people as we now know them," Maddox told The Jewish Week from her home in London.
For Maddox, Franklin’s Jewish heritage was one of the most significant factors in her professional and personal development. The 380-page book begins with a lively description of Anglo-Jewish life and of Franklin’s lineage. Her family – originally the Fraenkels of Breslau, Silesia – traces its roots to King David himself.
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Anglo-Jewry, Maddox writes, was "more English than the English. Its members dressed for dinner, were presented at court. … Many kept Christmas and Passover, ate kosher and played cricket."
Strongly influenced by her grandfather, Arthur, Franklin’s family was active in social service and conscious of community. (Arthur Franklin’s will stipulated that only those descendants married to Jews stood to inherit.) Franklin’s great-uncle, Herbert Samuel, was the first High Commissioner of Palestine, and wrote the memorandum that resulted in the Balfour Declaration.
But while Franklin never experienced outright anti-Semitism, it’s likely that she never felt entirely accepted among her gentile British colleagues.
"Her Jewish background certainly [was] another barrier to her recognition as an equal collaborator in that male-dominated society," Glassman said. At the same time, Franklin’s commitment to science as a benefit to humanity "was something ingrained in her" from her Jewish background, Glassman added, echoing a theme of Maddox’s book.
"I agree that faith is essential to success in life," Franklin wrote as a Cambridge undergraduate arguing against her father’s faith in life after death. "In my view all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining."
"Secret of Photo 51" debuts Tues., April 22, 8 p.m. ET on PBS. (Check local listings.) Actress Sigourney Weaver narrates.