A world without Rosalind Franklin
Credit: Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London
Rosalind Franklin was an X-ray crystallographer whose work played a major role in the discovery of the DNA double helix.
In the early 1950’s, Rosalind Franklin and her lab assistant famously produced Photograph 51, an image of the structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. This achievement directly facilitated James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helix. For what would be Rosalind’s 100th birthday, the Stereo Chemistry team consults experts in DNA science, crystallography, biology, and science history to envision the many ways the world might be different without Photograph 51. Follow along as host Kerri Jansen and guest reporter Gina Vitale embark on an It’s a Wonderful Life–like adventure to explore what modern science could look like if Rosalind Franklin hadn’t made her discovery.
Listen to the Distillations episode “Science on TV” at bit.ly/30yjZuU.
The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.
Jenifer Glynn: It’s obviously made perhaps the biggest revolution in biological science of the 20th century.
Kerri Jansen: The discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 changed the world. Understanding the shape of that molecule—which contains instructions for life in organisms of all types—has completely revolutionized the way we understand gene-related disorders, inheritance of traits, genetic mutations, and evolution of species. Without a solid grasp of DNA, we would not have things like ancestry.com, crime scene DNA matching, CRISPR, gene therapy, and much more.
The voice we just heard is Jenifer Glynn, speaking to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Edwin Silvester, recorded in 2015. And Jenifer knows a thing or two about the significance of the discovery of DNA’s structure, because she’s the sister of one of the scientists who was instrumental in making it happen. That scientist was Rosalind Franklin.
Edwin Silvester: What do you think she would think about being celebrated as a woman scientist, as a pioneer of her time?
Jenifer Glynn: She didn’t see herself that way, in any way.
Edwin Silvester: How did she see herself?
Jenifer Glynn: As a scientist.
Kerri: Rosalind’s legacy is what we’ll explore in this episode of Stereo Chemistry. I’m your host, Kerri Jansen. And joining me for this installment is Gina Vitale, an assistant editor at C&EN, who reported this episode. Welcome, Gina.
Kerri: Tell us why you wanted to dig into this story.
Gina: Well, this month marks what would have been Rosalind’s 100th birthday, on July 25th. And I realized, there’s a lot of her story that I just don’t know.
Rosalind was an X-ray crystallographer whose team managed to get a picture that revealed the helical nature of DNA. It was that image, called Photograph 51, that enabled two other scientists—James Watson and Francis Crick—to determine that DNA molecules take the form of a double helix.
Kerri: Which opened up a whole new world of DNA research.
Gina: Exactly. But Rosalind’s critical contribution to our understanding of DNA has often been overshadowed by flashier, more famous, and—let’s be honest—more male stories.
So for what would be her 100th birthday, I wanted to try to understand just how much Rosalind Franklin’s work changed the world. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’ll explore who she was, what she did, and what our world would look like if she was never in it. We’ll hear from leading scientists about what Photograph 51 made possible, and what their work would be missing without it.
Kerri: Let’s back up. I’ve definitely heard of Rosalind Franklin, but I don’t know all the details of her story.
Gina: Lucky for you, one of our friends at the Science History Institute is here to help.
Michelle DiMeo: Hi, I’m Michelle DiMeo. I’m the Arnold Thackray director of the Othmer Library at the Science History Institute.
Gina: Michelle is a historian of science, and her research has touched on many overlooked figures in science, including our subject for today, Rosalind.
Michelle DiMeo: So Rosalind Franklin, she was born in 1920 in England, and spent some time in Paris as well where she got to know a lot of other scientists.
Gina: It was Rosalind’s renown as a crystallographer that drew the attention of King’s College London.
Michelle DiMeo: So we know that many of the other scientists like Watson and Crick and others were looking at theoretical and mathematical explanations for whether this was a double helix that we were looking at in the DNA structure. But what was different about Rosalind Franklin was she was a very, very talented crystallographer. And that’s why she was recruited from Paris to return to London—this was her specialty.
So, we know that of course, the Nobel Prize for this eventually goes to Watson and Crick, but Rosalind Franklin had died by that point. She had been working in the lab, doing X-ray crystallography, she’s getting high exposure to radiation of course. So she passed away at such a young age of ovarian cancer that she must have gotten through the exposure to radiation in the lab on her work.
Gina: James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind’s supervisor, Maurice Wilkins, received the Nobel in 1962. Rosalind had died 4 years earlier in April 1958, at 37 years old. And the Nobel Prize isn’t awarded posthumously.
Michelle DiMeo: And what’s unfortunate, of course, is that it is that work as an X-ray crystallographer, and that hard labor she was doing with the radiation that produced that Photograph 51, that later was able to supplement Watson and Crick’s theories and models and led to the Nobel Prize.
Gina: Even if Rosalind was still alive for the 1962 Nobel Prizes, it’s unlikely that she’d have been recognized anyway. According to her sister, she was never even told that her image had contributed to the discovery. Photograph 51 was shown to the other scientists without her knowledge or her permission.
Kerri: Now, let’s talk about what it took to produce that photograph. Can you give us a rundown of what X-ray crystallographers do? I mean, I imagine it involves X-rays, and probably crystals, but I’m kind of in the dark on the rest.
Gina: I’ve got you. When you point an X-ray at a crystallized substance, the light from that X-ray gets scattered. That scattering is called diffraction. So when you shine X-rays at, say, a crystallized DNA fiber, the X-rays will diffract in a specific pattern. If you use a photographic plate, you can see spots where the X-rays hit after bouncing off the crystals, which gives you a clue as to the structure of those crystals.
Kerri: So it’s like reverse engineering the crystal structure from the pattern the X-ray leaves behind. How long does it take to get that diffraction pattern?
Gina: It’s only a matter of seconds, when a computer is involved. Back in the early 1950’s, Rosalind and her assistant didn’t have that kind of technology. The whole process took hours—the X-ray needed to be focused on the sample at a certain angle the entire time. And to make things harder, the DNA fibers had to be constantly kept at the right amount of moisture to prevent them becoming dehydrated and shrinking up. Rosalind designed an elaborate system that involved bubbling hydrogen through different salt solutions to keep the humidity just right. That’s what allowed the famous picture—Photograph 51—to come out so clear.
Kerri: Sounds like that work was really demanding.
Gina: I thought so too. But to confirm, I asked Cathy Drennan, a crystallographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, my alma mater. She uses X-ray diffraction to visualize proteins that catalyze reactions that happen in nature.
Cathy Drennan: The fact that they were able to get that image is, it really blows my mind. I mean, she was just pushing all sorts of boundaries. No one had done anything like this before.
Gina: Photograph 51 was a huge deal.
Kerri: So that image contained really important information for DNA science. But I’ve got a copy of Photograph 51 here, and to me, it doesn’t look like much. It’s a fuzzy gray blob with a bunch of dark dashes in the shape of an X. What did James Watson and Francis Crick see in this photo?
Credit: Raymond Gosling/King’s College London
Gina: Well, scientists at the time were toying with several possibilities for the shape and structure of DNA. Some thought it might form a figure 8, for example. Or contain three strands, rather than two. So James Watson and Francis Crick were using models to visualize the options, but they hadn’t yet nailed down the right one. From Rosalind’s photograph, they saw clearly that DNA was a helix—multiple strands twisted around each other. James Watson writes, “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.” It was a breakthrough moment.
Kerri: So what would have happened if Rosalind’s lab didn’t get that photograph?
Gina: That’s a wonderful question.
Kerri: So let me get this straight. We’re doing It’s a Wonderful Life, the science version.
Gina: Right! It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies. But instead of looking at a world in which George Bailey was never born, we’re going to look at what our world might be like without Rosalind Franklin.
Kerri: So does that make you the angel in this scenario?
Gina: I’m trying to get my wings here, Kerri.
I figured the best way to see how Rosalind’s work impacted science was to imagine a world in which she wasn’t around to help capture Photograph 51. And if we’re already going hypothetical, we might as well go all the way: What if we had never solved the structure of DNA at all? That’s what I asked Dana Foss, a biochemist at UC Berkeley.
Gina (in interview): What do you think the world might look like, if we were still trying to figure that out?
Dana Foss: Wow. That’s so hard, it’s so hard to even imagine.
Gina (voice over): Dana researches how to use the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 as a therapy for human disease. Because CRISPR is a tool used to modify genes at an individual level with a strand of DNA, knowing the shape of that DNA is crucial.
Dana Foss: I think the structure of DNA is really what allowed us to understand how genetics works. You know, it did help us understand how DNA replication works and genetic inheritance works on a molecular level and so, I think, if we did not understand DNA structure today, we essentially, we would not have modern science and we would not have modern medicine. We would not understand the genetic basis of disease.
Gina: Cathy Drennan shared similar feelings.
Cathy Drennan: Well, the structure really helps us understand how what they call the central dogma of life works. Thinking about diseases, genetic diseases, treatments for cancer—I mean, it is the fundamentals of so many things. So the impact would be everywhere.
Gina: And I also spoke with Joyce Chery, a biologist who researches why plants move and grow in specific directions. She says that although the field of plant biology hasn’t necessarily become less challenging to work in since the double helix was unveiled, the information has given plant biologists yet another tool to see how different species of plants are genetically connected.
Joyce Chery: Knowing the structure of DNA has made the life of an evolutionary biologist just a little bit more dynamic. Because prior to this understanding, we were confined to what we could see with our naked eyes, and what we could see under the microscope. That’s the morphology and anatomy of plants and animals. And that was the data, that was the basis for the hypotheses for the relationship between species on Earth. But we don’t have to stop there now. Now, with the knowledge of sequenced DNA, we can validate some of those previously determined hypotheses of the species relationships with a whole new data set, which is DNA.
Kerri: So this is all based on the premise that without Rosalind’s work, no one would ever have figured out the structure of DNA. Is that realistic?
Gina: Obviously, we can never know for sure. But Cathy thinks that’s probably not how it would have gone down. After all, people were pretty set on understanding DNA—scientists would’ve kept chugging away at it.
Cathy Drennan: I think eventually, other people would have gotten there, but it would have been a very different set of people. It probably would have taken a lot longer without that image.
Gina: Like Cathy, Dana hypothesizes that without Rosalind, things could have taken quite a bit longer.
Dana Foss: It’s possible that it could have been quite a bit slower because scientists in the field were on the wrong track before Rosalind Franklin’s data, and her conclusions from her data, were shared. So I do think that science would have been slowed down without Franklin’s work. And that means that all of the advances that we have today, would not be there. And so I wouldn’t be working on CRISPR; I’m sure of that. I’m sure that that maybe would be a generation further away.
Kerri: CRISPR is the most state-of-the-art tool we have for editing a DNA sequence directly. If CRISPR was still a generation away, that’d be a pretty big blow to genetics research, right?
Dana Foss: All of biology, all of genetics, all of molecular biology, has been transformed by the discovery of CRISPR. And that’s because scientists are always interested in understanding gene function in any species, whether it’s humans to understand a disease or genetics at a basic level. Everything to understanding the impact of the environment on a rare species of frog. The desire to understand the genetic basis is critical to our understanding of life, you know, on this planet. And so CRISPR has made it extremely easy for scientists to interrogate genome function.
Kerri: So CRISPR gives scientists another tool for understanding the roles different genes play in the body. Without it, our understanding of human genetics could potentially be very different right now.
Gina: Not just human genetics. Joyce, the plant biologist, pointed out the central role of DNA in plant breeding and crop improvements.
Joyce Chery: The knowledge of the structure of DNA has allowed researchers to figure out the genes that are underpinning ripening of fruit, underpinning the height of plants, the growth and regulation of plants, which obviously have implications in breeding better crops.
Gina: And like Dana, Joyce also mentioned how big a role CRISPR, which wouldn’t exist without a fundamental understanding of DNA, has played in her field.
Joyce Chery: People can make very precise mutations to the genome of plants and animals to generate different phenotypes of those plants and animals. And CRISPR, it’s so obvious the implications for agriculture, it’s obvious, the implications for biotechnology, and just for basic biological research in general.
Kerri: Okay. So a delay in pinpointing the structure of DNA would have had pretty significant implications across many fields of science.
Gina: Yeah. So much of the science we rely on today is rooted in Rosalind’s crystallography lab.
Kerri: We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll look at how the public’s understanding of Rosalind’s legacy has evolved in recent decades, and where there is still work to be done in giving other overlooked stories their due.
Gina: Did you know that our friends at the Science History Institute have their own podcast? If you love science—and we know you do—then we highly recommend their show, Distillations. It explores funny, bizarre, and serious stories from the intersection of science, culture, and history.
Did you know there was once a marketing war between butter and margarine? Or that the very first opioid addiction treatment center in the US became a notorious cult? Distillations does, and now you can too!
And if you want to learn more about the evolving perception of Rosalind Franklin, check out their episode “Science on TV,” which explores how a 1970s PBS NOVA episode found a fresh approach to the story of DNA.
Ingrid Ockert (excerpt from episode): And so the resulting episode is called “The Search for the Double Helix,” and it comes out in 1976. And it is, man, it’s kind of a hoot.
Isaac Asimov (in NOVA program): As a result of the contents of Watson’s book Double Helix, the impression has arisen that Franklin was an ogre to work with, but this is not so. Both before and after the events of the double helix, those who worked with her found her delightful.
Gina: We’ll include a link to that episode in this episode’s description. And you can find Distillations online at distillations.org.
Kerri: So, Gina, we’ve been talking about how if Rosalind Franklin never existed, the world today could be radically different. We could be decades behind in some really critical fields of science.
Gina: Potentially, yes—without her, we could be living in a much less advanced world. Her contribution to science was enormous.
Kerri: But I know that she’s also sort of the classic example of undercredited work in the world of science.
Gina: Right. Rosalind’s job wasn’t flashy, and for decades her contribution to discovering the structure of DNA went largely unrecognized. In James Watson’s 1968 book, The Double Helix, he does acknowledge that Rosalind’s Photo 51 was pivotal. But he also makes a point to criticize her clothing, her lack of makeup, and her demeanor. So that reflects some of the ways that Rosalind’s contribution has been minimized throughout history.
But thankfully, the tides have begun to change. After many years of being left out of the narrative, Rosalind’s role is now widely taught in schools.
Kerri: And her story has found its way into popular culture as well, right?
Gina: Exactly! For instance, the play Photograph 51, originally starring Nicole Kidman, was based on her research and her life.
Kerri: And there was that rap that a group of seventh graders in California made. We loved that!
Students from KIPP Bridge Charter: While you were chasing models, I used my X-ray. But what you know about getting your data the hard way? . . . Let me hear you recognize Rosalind Franklin, F-R-A-N-K-L-I-N.
Gina: We’ll link to that video, if you want to see the whole thing. I recommend it. There’s also a Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago, and there’s a rover set to land on Mars in 2020 named after her. She’s finally getting her due, as a scientist—a scientist whose work enabled a scientific revolution.
Kerri: On the one hand, it’s really gratifying to see Rosalind being recognized like this. But it’s her 100th birthday, and she made those contributions when she was in her 30s—her work was overlooked for such a long time.
Gina: And important contributions in science are still often overlooked. Here’s Dana again.
Dana Foss: The thing that really struck me about learning about Rosalind Franklin was that, you know, while Watson and Crick were sort of very keen to build the model of DNA that would ultimately give them so much credit, Franklin was much more concerned with getting enough data, getting the right data to prove such a model. And this lesson has sort of stuck with me as a scientist. Not only is that sort of the scientist that I respect more, but also, you know, it’s a lesson that sometimes the most serious and the most diligent of scientists who are responsible for collecting the most important data can be overlooked. And it’s a lesson in fighting back against that. And to change that in modern science.
Gina: It’s also important to acknowledge that major discoveries are made by teams of people, not just any one individual. And people not involved with the research directly—people doing administrative work, managing labs, or offering emotional support—all play a crucial role that often goes unnoticed.
Kerri: And this is true of Rosalind’s research as well. She did an immense amount of work to get that photograph, and she also benefited from collaboration with other members in her lab.
Michelle DiMeo: Ray Gosling was a doctoral student who was working with her in the laboratory. They were in the lab together, taking the photographs. You know, we talk about gender a lot and the women who maybe weren’t acknowledged, but there are also young men as well and other lab assistants of various ages, races, color, sexes who are also in the lab who do not get the same credit as the lead scientist.
Kerri: Michelle makes a good point. And it’s worth noting that even though Rosalind Franklin has now been given much of the recognition she deserved, there are plenty of scientists who are women or are from other underrepresented groups who are still buried in history.
Gina: Michelle and other historians are actively working to remedy that. In fact, the Science History Institute has a Women in Science initiative where they collect oral histories from women scientists and edit Wikipedia pages to reflect the contributions of women. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Michelle gave us just a sample of other women in crystallography alone who still aren’t widely recognized.
Michelle DiMeo: We all know Rosalind Franklin, but there are many others. There are people like Olga Kennard—in 1963, is when she published her first crystal structure with coordinates. She actually goes on to become the lead of the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, and she runs that until 1997. Dorothy Hodgkin might be a name that is familiar—she took the first X-ray photos of crystalline proteins, and she is one of the women to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. But then, there’s people who you might not know. Jenny Glusker, she worked with Linus Pauling in his lab, for instance. Everyone knows Linus Pauling, but no one knows Jenny Glusker. There’s a lot of women out there that we don’t know their names, and we don’t know their contributions. But I hope that as we move forward, we’ll start to uncover more of these stories and realize that Rosalind Franklin was very important, but she’s not the only one.
Kerri: It’s almost overwhelming to think about. How many Rosalind Franklin’s have there been, still totally unrecognized?
Gina: We might never be able to uncover them all. But as part of the scientific community, we can all take steps to acknowledge the people doing other lab work, or contributing to discoveries that tend to be credited to only a few people. Since the Nobel Prizes are only given to individuals, teams often go unrecognized. C&EN has covered some of the recent efforts to recognize the work of broader groups through that award.
Kerri: Now that’s a nonhypothetical world I look forward to seeing.
Gina: Speaking of which—if you can humor me, I’d like to ask our scientist friends one more hypothetical question.
Kerri: Is it as complicated as what the world would look like without knowledge of the double helix?
Gina: No, it’s very simple.
Gina (in interview): If somehow you could speak to Rosalind Franklin—if she could come back for a day, one of those scenarios—what would you want to say to her?
Dana Foss: I think first of all, I would want to talk to her about science. I would probably want to get her insight on my work, because she was so brilliant, and I would want to talk to her about her work. That would be my first priority. And second of all, I think I would want to acknowledge her work, and definitely discuss with her how the impact of her work and her life story has really transformed science for the better.
Gina (voice over): That was Dana, the CRISPR researcher. And here’s Joyce, the plant biologist.
Joyce Chery: I would ask her, how she maintained her fearlessness as she traversed throughout Europe, how she kept her voice alive. Yeah, and how she had the perseverance to be in the lab long enough to get that photo. That takes a lot of resilience to get that data point that’s going to last forever. This is not just trial one. You have to believe in it.
Gina: And Cathy, the X-ray crystallographer.
Cathy Drennan: I think that she would have really loved to know how important her science was. And I think that being recognized, the name recognition, I think would have meant less to her. She might have actually been unhappy by that. It wasn’t about being famous for her. It was about doing important scientific work, and knowing how important her scientific work was. I think that would have made her the happiest.
Gina: And finally, I asked historian Michelle what she would tell Rosalind if she had the chance.
Michelle DiMeo: I would love to tell her about all the other women in science that are out there. You know, people say, how do you get more diversity in science? And it’s very much about having role models, and having people who look like you. And I don’t think that she ever would have thought that or seen that. And I would love to just tell her more about some of the other women that came before her and the women that came after her.
And I read these stories about how she went to a friend’s house and she was crying or, you know, reading letters that she’s frustrated by the lab and how she’s being treated. And just to tell her, you weren’t crazy. It was really happening, and you did a great job.
Gina: Happy birthday, Rosalind.
Kerri: This episode of Stereo Chemistry was written by Gina Vitale and produced by me, Kerri Jansen. It was edited by Jyllian Kemsley and Amanda Yarnell. Heather Holt was our copy editor. The music in this episode was “Space Mission” by Young Rich Pixies, “Busy World” by Lance Conrad, “Thief in the Night” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Eclipse” by Ethan Rank.
Stereo Chemistry will be back next month with a new episode. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it.
Gina: Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society.
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