A Nobel Experiment: Rosalind Franklin and the Prize

Kat Zukaitis
 | Feb 25, 2019

Photograph 51 Logo

Rosalind Franklin at Microscope

​​Rosalind Franklin in 1955.

DNA Model

​​James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953. 

Photo 51 showing DNA structure

Photo 51, an X-ray diffraction image of crystallized DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling in 1952, has been called the "most important photo ever taken" for the insights it offered into DNA's structure.

In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. This was one of the major scientific achievements of the twentieth century, a revolution in our understanding of the building blocks of biology that indisputably merited recognition at the highest levels. But recognition for whom?

When Watson, Crick and Wilkins thanked their many collaborators from the podium, one of the names mentioned only in passing was Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist who had been Wilkins’ colleague at King’s College, London. Her X-ray photographs had given Watson and Crick the final clues they needed to solve the puzzle of DNA’s shape, and the calculations from her crystallography work provided the measurements that allowed them to accurately model the atomic structures involved. When Watson and Crick announced their discovery in 1953, the King’s lab had been well on the way to solving the problem of DNA on its own. But the deep personal antipathy between Franklin and Wilkins had held back their lab’s progress, and Franklin was never made fully aware of how her data had informed Watson and Crick’s model. The absence of any significant recognition for her contributions in the following years was both troubling and predictable.

For playwright Anna Ziegler, the tangled history of Rosalind Franklin’s role in the DNA race represented an opportunity. In Photograph 51, she pays tribute to the brilliant mind behind the photographs that unlocked the mystery of DNA—and examines the complicated personal relationships that ultimately shaped the path to scientific discovery. “I was taken by the metaphor of the double helix,” Ziegler says. “We have a story of these two pairs: one that worked together and one that did not.” Franklin and Wilkins’ personal tensions, Watson and Crick’s determination to win at all costs, and the lingering “boys club” mentality of post-war British labs are all ingredients in this thrilling true story of achievement and regret.

To director Kimberly Senior, the structure of Photograph 51—in which Wilkins, Watson, Crick and others serve as a chorus of argumentative narrators—suggested a Greek tragedy, in which the survivors are haunted by the question of what they could have done differently. What made one partnership sink and another shine? How do you weight the chance of greatness against the price of failure? Would different decisions have led to a different outcome? Would anything have unfolded differently if Franklin had been a man? Now doomed to retell their story in perpetuity, the chorus sifts through the past, looking for the fine line between choice, chance and inevitability.

Rosalind Franklin will never win a Nobel Prize, but she is, at long last, getting the recognition that is her due. Under the expert direction of Kimberly Senior, the team of Photograph 51 brings to light the friendships and rivalries behind the work of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin, telling the tale of a historical omission that continues to resonate strongly today.

Read more about the cast of Photograph 51 here.

Nobel Prize Medal

​​Nobel Prize Medal

Lise Meitner and Otto Hah

​​ Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1913.

There’s a very good reason that Rosalind Franklin did not share the 1962 Nobel Prize: she had died of ovarian cancer four years earlier and the Nobel committee does not consider posthumous candidacies. Moreover, the Nobel rules stipulate that each prize may be shared by no more than three people; and, as the committee often favors those who initiated the award-winning research, Maurice Wilkins would probably still have been the preferred candidate, since his lab’s investigation into the structure of DNA had begun well before Franklin arrived from Paris. Watson later suggested that, had Franklin lived, she and Wilkins should have shared that year’s prize in chemistry, with the prize in physiology or medicine going to himself and Crick. But that, of course, never happened—and records show that Franklin was never even nominated.

No one has ever claimed that the Nobel Prizes are fair. The awards come off as particularly arbitrary in the sciences, when a breakthrough is rarely, if ever, the result of a single brilliant individual. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Sir Isaac Newton—but a more accurate contemporary version of the quote would be, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of a giant group of researchers, postdocs, students and technicians at my institution and at partner institutions around the world.” Every discovery is supported by a vast team, and the rising expense of research has resulted in more and more cross-institutional collaborations. A recent paper that precisely estimated the mass of the Higgs boson particle was published with no less than 5,154 authors.

Moreover, the Nobels—like any award—are doled out by people with their own priorities and prejudices. Because previous laureates play a major role in nominating new candidates, the system amplifies entrenched fraternal networks and structural biases. At the time of Franklin’s death in 1958, only four Nobel Prizes in the sciences had gone to women—and three of those had gone to the Curie family (two to Marie and one to her daughter Irène).

Rosalind Franklin is hardly the only snub in the Nobel’s history, nor is she the worst. The Austrian physicist Lise Meitner worked alongside Otto Hahn to discover nuclear fission but she did not share his 1944 Nobel in physics, despite 48 nominations over the course of her lifetime—in part because, like many Jewish scientists, she was forced to flee from Germany in the late 1930s, ​and left behind her work. At the time of the 1939 discovery, she was living in Sweden and collaborating with Hahn from afar. (She did get an element named after her as a consolation prize.) Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Arthur Miller, Chinua Achebe and Jorge Luis Borges are among the major writers overlooked for the literature prize. In perhaps the most egregious omission, Mahatma Gandhi never received the peace prize, despite several nominations; the Nobel committee declined to award a prize in 1948, the year of his assassination, on the grounds that “there was no suitable living candidate.”

If Rosalind Franklin had lived longer, she likely would have regarded a Nobel (or a lack of one) with a certain amount of stoicism—her priority was making sure she had funding to do interesting, important research with a convivial group of collaborators, not getting recognition. But it’s impossible to say what might have happened. Chemistry laureate Aaron Klug, Franklin’s protégé at Birkbeck College and the primary beneficiary in her will, credited her with introducing him to the study of viruses and to the value of tackling long and difficult scientific problems. “Had her life not been cut tragically short,” he said in his own 1982 Nobel acceptance speech, “she may well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion.”

Learn more about Photograph 51 and buy tickets.

Leave a comment