A British chemist, Dr. Rosalind Franklin was responsible for cutting-edge research that proved central to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA in the 1950s. Her work clarified the chemical makeup of DNA and bolstered the study by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for which they won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin’s pioneering research came to a halt with her untimely death from cancer in 1958 at age 37.
To celebrate what would have been Franklin’s 100th birthday on July 25, 2020, we sat down with Madeline Myers, a composer and lyricist in New York City. Myers is working on Double Helix, a new musical centered on Franklin, about the race to secure the discovery of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin isn’t a household name, despite her impressive achievements. How did you learn about Franklin and research her life?
Several years ago, a friend asked me if I knew anything about the discovery of DNA. He went on to tell me about this epic race that had occurred in the early 1950s among three different labs: a lab at King’s College in London, the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, and a lab at CalTech in Pasadena. He cut to the end, saying that the race was won by James Watson, Francis Crick, and the lesser-known Maurice Wilkins, which is what we all learn in our history and science classes.
I was immediately enthralled by the story of the race to discover DNA; it felt rich and poignant and powerful. It was only once I started researching and reading more about it that I realized there was this young Anglo-Jewish woman named Rosalind Franklin who was at the center of discovery and who has been left out of our dominant cultural narrative about the most important scientific discovery in modern history. And as soon as I read about Rosalind, I knew I had to tell her story and that it had to be musicalized.
How did Franklin’s career in science develop in the 1940s? Did World War II change her course as a female scientist?
World War II played an enormous role in Rosalind’s development as a young scientist and would go on to shape her education and her career. Because so many male students and faculty at Cambridge became soldiers or were involved in war research, all of a sudden there was a need for women to work in the scientific industry, and one of the early songs in “Double Helix” mentions that specifically. Rosalind had friends and cousins who were aiding the war effort doing code-breaking and working in the women’s army service, and Rosalind was awarded a fourth-year scholarship working in the physical chemistry lab of a scientist named R.G.W. Norrish. Rosalind had a terrible time working in Norrish’s lab! She would write her family that he gave her work that was well beneath her abilities and always acted superior to her. She was desperate to leave Norrish’s lab, and once she did, she started doing work more directly related to the war effort, researching coals to understand their purposes for fuel and other wartime devices such as gas masks. It was that kind of work that would lay the groundwork and allow her to develop the skills necessary for her DNA work at King’s College in the early 1950s.
Also inseparable from Rosalind’s experience of World War II was her identity as a young Jewish woman. And it was during World War II and her time at Cambridge that she met Adrienne Weill, a physicist and Jewish refugee from France, who would go on to be an incredibly significant and influential woman in her life. I look at Rosalind’s meeting Adrienne as a turning point in her life because after the war, Adrienne helped Rosalind get a job in Paris, the very job that would train her to become an expert crystallographer and lead to her fellowship at King’s College.
Franklin was known for sometimes being brash and forceful in the laboratory and in intellectual debates. How would you describe her relationships with James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in the early 1950s? Did she have any other research partners or did she generally work independently?
I’m endlessly fascinated by Rosalind’s relationships with James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins while she was working at King’s. Her relationship with Maurice is famously contentious: She was confrontational and liked to work through her ideas through lively debate, Maurice was meek and mild and shied away from any kind of confrontation. They were like oil and water in their dispositions and personalities, and eventually their boss, John Randall, who ran the King’s College biophysics lab at the time, had to separate them, which ultimately led to even more complications in the DNA story. Rosalind’s primary biographer, Brenda Maddox, also points out that Rosalind and Maurice should have gotten along, given their similar backgrounds and interests. It has been an exciting challenge for me to dramatize Rosalind’s relationship with Maurice, to capture all of its complexities and nuances, and to bring them into fraught conflict again and again as they both race toward discovery.
When you read James Watson’s controversial memoir, you immediately get the sense that Watson simultaneously disdained and admired Rosalind. He respected her intellect and abilities, and he knew she was smarter than he was; that was the very thing that threatened him. Watson belittles and disparages her continuously throughout the book, particularly when describing one of Rosalind’s lectures. To complicate things even more, Francis Crick and his wife Odile eventually became friends of Rosalind’s after she left King’s. Rosalind, of course, never had any idea that Crick had used her data in order to build the correct model of DNA that would help him secure discovery.
What’s also so interesting to me is how Rosalind is consistently characterized in biographies and memoirs as having a forceful and confrontational personality. It’s hard to know what that really means. Was she actually unpleasant to work with, or was she just a woman who spoke up about issues that mattered to her in her work? Was she rude to her colleagues, or was she an exceptional scientist who strove for excellence in her lab? What we do know is Rosalind loved to work through her ideas by debating them out loud, which was something she grew up doing with her father, Ellis Franklin. For her, debating ideas and defending a point of a view was a way of getting at the truth of something, and I think that’s an important part of who Rosalind was as a scientist and as a woman.
Did she have relationships with other female scientists?
One of the really interesting things that almost immediately emerged when I sat down and started developing the story world for Rosalind was that her life was primarily populated by men. I started mapping out who I felt were all the main characters of her life— Watson, Crick, Maurice, John Randall, Jacques Mering— and noticed this glaring absence of women in her world. I began asking myself, where are the women in Rosalind’s life? She had many friends and a vibrant social life outside of the lab, but I feel there are two women in particular who figure into her life in a major way. The first was Adrienne Weill, who Rosalind met when she was a student at Newnham College, one of the two colleges for women at Cambridge. Rosalind really admired Adrienne and her career as a physicist, and Adrienne became a mentor to Rosalind over the years and helped her throughout her career. In Double Helix, Adrienne is a hugely important character, and I’m working very hard to capture the significance of their relationship.
The second woman who I feel played an enormously important part in Rosalind’s life was the American writer Anne Sayre. Rosalind originally met Anne through her husband, David Sayre, who was also an X-ray crystallographer, and the two women were friends until Rosalind died in 1958. After James Watson wrote The Double Helix in 1968 and villainized Rosalind in the book, Anne was outraged by his gross misrepresentation of Rosalind, and she wrote Rosalind Franklin and DNA to defend Rosalind. One of the things I’m trying to do is make the structure of the show itself a double helix with time and storytelling, using the structure to illuminate the story. I think Anne is the character who activates and earns the double helix storytelling structure in the show because she was, in a lot of ways, someone who gave voice to Rosalind’s story and kept her memory and legacy alive after Rosalind passed away. I’m still figuring out how to execute the storytelling structure, and I think it has the opportunity to be extremely powerful.
Franklin was an expert in X-ray crystallography. Her work clarified X-ray patterns of DNA molecules and the now-famous “Photo 51” provided vital clues to uncovering the double helix model. Watson and Crick also used Franklin’s precise observations from X-ray crystallography, including the relative distance of the repetitive elements in the DNA molecule, which proved decisive to their breakthrough. How did Watson and Crick come to acquire Franklin’s data?
This is where history and the events of discovery become a little murky, which I think is really interesting as a dramatist (and it’s probably interesting to a historian as well). Rosalind, alongside her Ph.D. student Raymond Gosling, captured Photograph 51 from May 1 to May 2 in 1952. (X-ray photographs required long exposures, as much as 100 hours at close range, which was why this photograph was taken over a two-day period.) Over the next several months, Rosalind prepared to leave her job at King’s; she had been extremely unhappy there, and she finally decided that she can’t work there any longer. Her Ph.D. student, Raymond, was being transferred to Maurice Wilkins’s lab, so his DNA work with Rosalind— including Photograph 51— was given to Maurice.
In January 1953, Watson visited Maurice and Rosalind at King’s, and while Watson and Maurice were talking about their dislike of Rosalind, Maurice unguardedly showed Photograph 51 to Watson, not realizing that as soon as Watson would see the image, he would see what he needed to know in order to go back to Cambridge and build the model with Crick that would secure discovery, land him the Nobel Prize, and change forever what we understand to be the history of science. Maurice shared the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick for securing the discovery of DNA, and Rosalind had no idea that it was her experimental data from Photograph 51— shared without her permission by Maurice— that enabled Watson and Crick to build their correct model and secure discovery first.
What was Franklin’s reaction when Watson and Crick solely published the double helix DNA model and claimed that they cracked the DNA code in 1953?
It’s interesting: In all of the retellings of DNA’s discovery— Watson’s memoir, Crick’s memoir, Maurice’s memoir, Anne Sayre’s book, Brenda Maddox’s biography, the family memoir written by Rosalind’s sister, Jenifer Glynn, to name a few— the voice we never hear from is Rosalind’s. The sad reality is we don’t really know how she felt when she saw that Watson and Crick were publishing their structure in Nature (a peer-reviewed British scientific journal). Brenda Maddox writes that Raymond Gosling recalled her reaction to Watson and Crick’s paper was something like, “That’s a very pretty model; now, can they prove it?” Rosalind was always challenging and questioning data; that’s one of the things that made her such an exceptional scientist.
Because Rosalind didn’t know that Watson and Crick had only been able to build a correct model based on her experimental data from Photograph 51, she actually amended her paper that she was submitting simultaneously to Nature to say that her findings were consistent with Watson and Crick’s model. Well, of course they were consistent; Watson and Crick had only been able to build their model from her data! The irony here is cruel and heartbreaking. One of the big things that has emerged to me in the process of writing this play is that history sometimes tells the truth, but not always. Science, however, always tells the truth.
Franklin’s career serves as a high-stakes instance of sexism in science: three men taking credit for one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century and essentially erasing Franklin’s contributions. What can we learn from her story?
This question is why I want to tell Rosalind’s story. We have to tell her story because the injustice of what happened to Rosalind should never happen again. What I hope Double Helix asks of audiences is: How can you be an agent of change in the face of injustice today? Whose voices are being left out of history, and how can we actively work to disassemble the systems that suppress those voices? I can’t let Rosalind’s 100th birthday pass without noting the present-day challenges of women in science, and especially women of color in science. Why does this matter, and why does this matter right now? We know that careers in STEM tend to be significantly more lucrative than non-STEM jobs, so closing the gender gap in science may help us close the gender gap in income.
Something else I hope Rosalind’s story teaches us— something it has certainly taught me in the process of writing it— is that science is a real, living, breathing thing that affects every single minute of our lives in deeply human ways. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I’ve thought of science as incomprehensible equations and unpronounceable words that feel too intellectual or dense to be meaningful or emotional. Writing Rosalind’s story has taught me that science is actually an extremely human thing; it is real and deeply emotional and all around us. You need look no further than the coronavirus pandemic to understand that science affects each of us in fundamental, basic ways. In Anne Sayre’s book about Rosalind, she writes something that I think about all the time in telling Rosalind’s story: “It may come as a surprise to those who think reverently of science as something done by people of remarkable and inhuman detachment to discover that the course of scientific discovery in our time was much affected by the human inability to remain detached.”
What inspired you to devote a musical to Franklin’s career? Can you tell us more about how you developed the music and lyrics for a show about a female scientist? I wonder, did you have to study science and DNA?
New work takes a really long time to develop, so I’m currently very much in the process of developing Double Helix and still feel like I’m in the early stages of writing it. I did have to study science and DNA… a lot, actually! I’m not a scientist or a historian or a biographer; I’m a musical dramatist, so while I knew that I had to have an extremely thorough understanding of Rosalind’s scientific work in order to credibly tell her story, I always say that Rosalind’s story isn’t actually about science. This is the story of an extraordinary woman who sets out to do extraordinary things in her too-short life, and she manages to accomplish them despite the misogyny, sexism, and anti-Semitism she continually encounters along the way. Scientific discovery is the vehicle through which Rosalind’s story gets told in Double Helix, but her story— the emotional thrust and truth of her life— is much bigger than just the discovery of DNA.
Is Franklin remembered or celebrated in the United States or the United Kingdom today?
One of the things I’m hoping is that this play will help Rosalind and her work become more widely known and celebrated. What’s so exciting is that people are starting to know her name more and more. In addition to Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago, there are some very prestigious science awards and grants named after her, and King’s College named a building after her and Maurice in 2000. There is a Mars rover that was named for her last year, which I really love because of its thematic connection to science and discovery. It’s funny, though, because my impression of Rosalind is that she was such a no-nonsense person that she surely would have scoffed at seeing these things being named in her memory.
Rosalind’s family is also extremely active in keeping her name and legacy alive. Rosalind’s sister Jenifer published a book about her several years ago, and I’ve been lucky to connect with her family including Rosalind’s niece— also named Rosalind Franklin in honor of her aunt— and Rosalind’s brother Roland Franklin. The Franklin family has been very generous to me and enthusiastic about the show, and last year I actually got to have lunch with Roland Franklin, who is in his mid-90s. We sat down together for a few hours and talked all about his sister. It was incredibly meaningful to get to hear him remember Rosalind, and for me— sitting across from her brother— it was a living reminder that Rosalind was a real person who did real work that has affected us all. I think about Roland while I write his sister’s story, to try to render Rosalind’s life and work as truthfully and bravely as I can. And, in perhaps the most exquisite connection to Rosalind of all, meeting Rosalind’s family feels as close as I can get to her, as they share the very thing she studied: DNA.
Had Franklin lived, the Nobel committee ought to have awarded her a Nobel prize, too. (Although there was no official prohibition on posthumous Nobel prizes until 1974.) How does your music create a legacy for Franklin’s career?
You know, I think about this all the time. What is Rosalind’s legacy? What did she leave behind? Who was she, as a scientist, and as a woman? How do we remember her?
Rosalind’s legacy is hopeful. It is rooted in her stubborn belief in possibility and discovery. At her core, Rosalind was a woman who sought to discover life in its most literal— and metaphorical— form. Possibility was Rosalind’s worldview, the lens through which she experienced her life. What is possible? I believe that question underscores every step of Rosalind’s work and is more resonant today than ever before. I hope that this show expresses Rosalind’s truth, her journey to discovery, as bravely as it can and that it asks audiences to look more deeply, just as Rosalind did, for what is possible. If we all endeavored to discover truth with the same curiosity and courage that Rosalind did, how different might our world be?
Written by Nicole Mahoney, Early Career Workshop Coordinator, Center for Women’s History