Two of the most famous names in science are Watson and Crick. Even if you don’t recall exactly what they’re known for, they probably sound familiar. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins, for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. You may not know the name of the woman whose work made the discovery possible and who probably deserves at least as much credit as Watson and Crick.

Rosalind Franklin grew up in a world where women were not supposed to seek higher education, but she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge. When she became a researcher at King’s College in London she was forbidden from the dining hall and the pubs where her colleagues socialized because she was a woman. When Maurice Wilkins returned from a sabbatical to find her running DNA research, he naturally assumed she was just a technical assistant and not one of his peers. Their working relationship never recovered from his gaffe.

Nevertheless, it was Franklin who made the first X-ray photographs of DNA in which its structure was visible. Wilkins apparently showed the images to James Watson, who promptly published an article in Nature describing the structure of DNA. Watson certainly knew what he was looking at and contributed plenty of his own scholarship to the work, but Franklin’s discovery was the key. By the time the Nobel was awarded Franklin had died and Nobels are never given posthumously. Those who study biology learn about Franklin, but most of the general public has never heard of this woman who was instrumental in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.

L.A. Theater Works has recorded a radio broadcast of their performance of a play, Photograph 51, about the competition and the relationships behind this discovery. I found it a bit hard to follow on the radio because there are so many similar voices. As a play you also have the playwright’s interpretation, the director’s interpretation, and the actors’ impersonations all between you and the facts. Still, it’s a fascinating story and worth checking out and I’d love to see a live production.

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