Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2003


By John Doyle

The Globe and Mail
Toronto, Canada

This year is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure, the key to unlocking the secret of life itself. It eventually changed both the way scientific evidence is used in criminal investigations, and the way criminal investigation is portrayed in popular culture. A significant part of coverage of the 50th anniversary has been devoted to the fact that the contributions of one scientist, a woman, were deliberately played down or ignored.

Nova: Secret of Photo 51 is devoted to this story. It's a shocking and trenchant study of how and why the work of that woman -- Rosalind Franklin -- was ignored. The upshot was that Franklin was robbed of a Nobel Prize.

Much of the program is devoted to Franklin's story as biographer Brenda Maddox tells it. Before Maddox's book appeared, the main portrait of Franklin was in the 1968 bestseller The Double Helix, written by James Watson. In 1962, Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of DNA's double helix.

In Watson's book, Franklin is described as a difficult woman who was unwilling to share her research. She's characterized as a complainer and her appearance and clothes are criticized. What actually happened is that Wilkins had shown Franklin's research -- the key was "Photo 51" -- to Watson and Crick.

This Nova program, which often uses sepia-toned re-enactments to dramatize scientific work and arguments, manages to give viewers a compelling picture of the scientific world of London in the 1950s. It was a world in which sexism and anti-Semitism were rampant. As a woman and a Jew, Rosalind Franklin was not only officially unwelcome in the Common Room at King's College, where she did her work, but the work itself was denigrated.

Before she did her research in London, Franklin had spent a much happier time in Paris. One of her colleagues from the Paris period, Vittorio Luzzatti, says in the program that her friends in Paris were appalled by Franklin's accounts of King's College. "All that she told us about it was incredible. It was absurd. It's not the kind of life that anybody would like to have -- to be forbidden a place because you are a dog, a woman or a Jew!"

The program suggests that a simple matter of a "miscommunication," exacerbated by suspicion of Franklin as a woman, changed everything. Maurice Wilkins believed that Franklin had been hired as his assistant. She had in fact been hired to be his colleague, working as his equal. Thus he blithely showed her research to others, who recognized its extraordinary value and used it.

Franklin made her breakthrough in 1952. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962. By then, Rosalind Franklin was dead -- she died in 1958, at the age of 37, from ovarian cancer. She was not only forgotten, but the men who won the Nobel defamed her.

This Nova program, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, is one of those stories that transcend the world of science. It's an absorbing drama about smart people who are stupid in their prejudices and resentments.

It's about backstabbing and manipulation. It's about two men going to the pub one day after work in 1953, telling their cronies, "We've discovered the secret of life!" and then working hard to obscure the fact that the fundamental work was done by someone else.

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