Photo 51 - Mother of Double Helix.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


 

‘What is life?’, is a question that has no concrete answer. As impossible as it may seem to understand, but once subjected into the branches of ideology or School of thought, the opinions filter in and churn into answers. Science is one such School of thought, where the opinions are the theories that churn into the laws of nature. In Science, one of the essential elements that holds the key for life and its understanding is genes and the expression of genes is influenced by how the DNA is packaged, which holds the evolutionary information encoded within every living form from viruses to humans. Understanding its structure was one of the greatest achievements of human history. We may remember Watson-Crick model as the cream of it, but there was a lot more that has gone into its churning. This is that story, which features Rosalind Franklin, the unsung mother of Double helix, as an essential de facto collaborator of the Double helix model. 

 

“Living matter evades the decay to equilibrium” said Erwin Schrodinger who shared the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physics for laying the foundations of Wave mechanics in 1933. Famously known for his thought experiment involving a cat and a box, he was a man of many interests. Though he was an atheist himself, he believed that reality was twinned with divinity and science was a path that led to it. World War II, made him leave Berlin, where he had been working. On invitation of Eaman de Valera, an Irish mathematician and the then President of Ireland, Schrodinger reached Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. There he gave lectures, with a philosophical and stimulating title, “What is life?” to an audience of 400, who found the lectures interesting indeed. Schrodinger in his lectures, debated about the different grounds that the biology was studied on compared to that of physics & chemistry. The living & the non-living. One involves dissection of objects, while the other, fundamentals of natural phenomena. He hence declared to think of living organisms in terms of their molecular & atomic structure, and posed an immediate follow-up question. If entropy is things falling apart, ordered into disorder, then why don’t genes decay and have instead passed intact generation to generation? The answer to it, with its complication, led to the birth of biophysics, a field, Rosalind Franklin arriving in London entered on 5th of January 1951. 

Born in London on July 25th of 1920, Rosalind Franklin was the elder daughter and the second child in the family of five children. Her family did well by banking and publishing, involving themselves in social causes, as they even once helped Jewish refugees, who had escaped Nazis, by providing them shelter. Her aunt had vouched for her great memory skills, as Rosalind would do arithmetic for pleasure and invariably would get the answers right. Her only educational weakness was music, but as a child she was a very clever kid. She joined St. Paul’s School, which had its name for setting a career oriented trajectory for girls. As a teenager, Rosalind wanted to be a scientist, which was difficult in those days. In 1938, through her scholarship, Rosalind went to Newnham College in Cambridge and in the last year of her college, she met Adrienne Weill, one the student of Marie Curie, who had a huge influence on her. University of Cambridge noticing her work on Coals awarded her PhD in 1945. Her work, though was the basis for many papers, it also helped to make better gas masks for British during the World War 2. From there Rosalind went to Paris, under the suggestion of Adrienne Weill, where she worked extensively on the method of X-ray diffraction used to determine the molecular structures and integrity of crystals. Though the first half of the 20th century science belonged to physics, with General theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Nuclear Fission, the second half or rather known as post World War, belonged to the field of biology. Foreseeing this many young physicists made the switch, including Rosalind, as she was offered a Fellowship in at King’s College London in 1951. 

Though she was appointed for X-ray diffraction of proteins and lipids in the beginning, she was redirected to the then hottest topic, study of structure of DNA through Crystallography (X-ray diffraction). Before she began her work, due to her expertise in  the field, she was assigned a graduate student, Raymond Gosling, to be her assistant. Gosling was earlier assisted by Maurice Wilkins, a physicist from Manhattan Project,  who was working on DNA, who happened to be gone on holidays on the arrival of Rosalind. John Randall, who was the director of the institute, didn’t communicate to Wilkins regarding the reassignment of Gosling to Rosalind. Rosalind did a lot of refinement and adjusting in the laboratory by setting up the instruments for the experiment. With the manipulations that had gone by, Wilkins, in return was offended, as he suspected her superiority over him. This led to the friction between the two researchers. Wilkins would go on to treat Rosalind as his assistant, the word spread around University, and given the time and exclusive male environment at the workplace, Rosalind experienced a hostile work environment thereafter. 

Meanwhile back in Cambridge, a young 23 year old physicist turned Crystallographer, James Watson, finishing his PhD from Indiana University, arrives at Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University to work alongside Francis Crick on the determining the structure of the DNA model. This was supervised by Nobel Laureate, Sir Lawerence Bragg. Watson and Crick had produced many attempts on the model and had failed consistently in finding the right one. This had even led to them being put off from the project by Bragg for a brief time. Meanwhile, despite the struggling times Rosalind had to face at her institute, she kept shining high energy X-rays on tiny wet crystals of DNA, and eventually managed to pull off an image, an image that took nearly 100 hours to capture, an image that would go into the history books, an image with which data could be extracted that would determine the double helix structure of DNA. They named it Photo 51. But the analysis and readings needed time. It was the 51st diffraction photo that Franklin and Gosling had captured. Then Wilkins, behind the back of Rosalind, stole the image and shared it with Watson. For Watson and Crick, the image inspired them to model the double helix of DNA. But even before reaching the right model, due to their lack of knowledge in the chemistry department, they struggled in placing the sugar phosphate group. With support of MRC’s (Medical Research Council, Rosalind’s laboratory) data and even on suggestions given by Rosalind herself (who had no clue that the idea was inspired by her stolen image), they arrived at the right model. This was documented in one of the dialogues between Watson and Crick, when Crick suggested to Watson, ‘Why don’t you put the phosphates on the outside like Rosalind said’. 

On March 7th of 1953, Watson and Crick finished the model, just one day before they received a letter from Wilkins that Rosalind had decided to leave the institute. They submitted their findings to Nature Journal and to the same edition, Rosalind submitted her finished manuscript after her completion of analysis. The editor of the journal placed Watson and Crick’s article first and Rosalind’s in the last, making her work seem like more of a supporting result to Watson and Crick’s work while in actuality it was the inspiration that led them to the result. Just imagine if Steve Jobs wasn’t credited for Apple. Watson, Crick and Wilkins even went on to win the Nobel prize for the double helix model in 1962, without even a footnote mentioning Rosalind Franklin’s name. Watson was even criticised later for his misogynistic views on Rosalind, in his book ‘The double helix’, where he addresses her as ‘Rosy’ and calls her a ‘plain-dressing belligerent scientist’. Watson later even confided, begrudgingly though, Rosalind’s contribution. 

Rosalind went onto work in the field of viruses locating its infectious element, in Birkbeck University from 1953-58 and even contributed to the vaccine of the polio virus. This brought her some international recognition for who she was. But most of the adulations and honour in her name came in the form of posthumous, after she was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer in 1956. Though she continued to work for more than a year publishing 6 papers, she breathed her last on 16th April of 1958. The readings on the headstone read, 

 

Scientist - Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind.

 

Noble committee doesn’t nominate posthumously. Although it's speculated whether she would have been considered or not for Nobel in 1962, there also has been a speculation that she would have won twice, as the work she worked on, as a collaborator with Aaron Klug during her days in Birkbeck University, paved way for his Nobel in the field of Chemistry in 1962. Though she worked on the scale of molecules and atom, her belief system was coupled by the other end of the scale, which describes her best as an agnostic, which is seen in one the letter written to her father in 1940, part of it which reads,

 

‘As to the question of a creator. A creator of what? ... I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe.’

 

Ironically she never got to know that her image, Photo 51 was the stepping stone for one of the greatest achievements of human history and she had actually won the race. But  she had found peace as she believed, ‘Joy of science was in the work itself and its ultimate reward, betterment of humankind’. Today there are plaques held high at the institutes she worked in, with her name and contributions on it. There is a university in Illinois, Chicago that titles her name. More recently, Britain’s Royal Society created the Rosalind Franklin award to support women in Science. Amongst many many other honours, Rosalind Franklin is remembered as a brave scientist who fought against sexism, which has inspired many women to take up science, sparkle their beautiful mind and to look at the world straight in the eye, which above all is ‘Noble’ indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

References : Wiki, Works of Dr. Lynne Osman Elkin, PBS, NOVA, Secret of Photograph 51 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: October 19, 2020

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