It is rated by some as one of the greatest injustices in scientific history. For others, it is a storm in an academic teacup, a distraction from the real story of the uncovering of the structure of DNA, the stuff from which our genes are made.
However, for Nicole Kidman the opportunity to play one of the search’s chief protagonists, Rosalind Franklin, in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 – which opens in London’s West End next week – provides her with a special challenge: a chance to fulfil a pledge to her late father, Antony Kidman.
He was a biochemist and knew about Franklin’s work, the Oscar-winning actress has revealed, and was particularly pleased when he found out, shortly before his death, that his daughter was thinking of playing her in Photograph 51. In fact, the actress grew up in a household steeped in science. “I’m getting my PhD in DNA now,” she added in a recent Vogue interview about her role.
Photograph 51 tells the story of Franklin’s unhappy time working at King’s College London, where she shared a laboratory with the molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins. He was highly talented and kind, but was also stiff, formal and unable to relate to women. Franklin was brilliant, but had a fiery temper and did not suffer fools gladly.
Both were carrying out research on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which scientists were beginning to realise was the material from which our genes are made. Understanding its structure would help to unravel the way in which the bodies of all living entities are put together under the direction of their genes. Glory beckoned for the team that succeeded.
Wilkins and Franklin were well-placed to make the breakthrough. Both were highly skilled in the technique of X-ray crystallography, which could reveal the structure of complex molecules, but the pair did not get on. Wilkins was the senior partner in the collaboration, but Franklin refused to cooperate and tried to keep her work to herself. At the same time other scientists were waiting in the wings, in particular Francis Crick and James Watson, who were based at Cambridge university.
The difference between the two pairs of scientists – one of the key themes of Photograph 51 – is intriguing. Crick and Watson worked well as a team, but never took an X-ray picture or carried out a significant experiment. Speculation was their approach. By contrast, Franklin resolutely refused to speculate and insisted that only by carrying out better and better experiments and by taking sharper X-ray photographs of DNA crystals would the secret of its structure be revealed.
In the end, Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin’s best images – an X-ray tagged as “photograph 51”. It provided enough information for Watson and Crick to realise that the structure of DNA must be a double helix. “We have found the basic mechanism by which life comes from life,” Crick wrote in a letter to his son, Michael. In 1962 Wilkins, Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel prize for physiology. Franklin had died of cancer four years earlier. Whether she would have received a Nobel – which is awarded to a maximum of three individuals – is an issue that still causes common-room arguments.
“The play, in effect, deals with an injustice,” said Michael Grandage, who is directing Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre. “Rosalind Franklin was sidelined in the overall story about how DNA’s structure was revealed. Not enough people spoke up for her at the time and that is only being put right now.”
The play also focuses on sexism in science, an issue that has recently made headlines across the globe. In Franklin’s case, the issue was a very real one. The King’s College senior common room, where researchers met to discuss ideas, was open to men only. At the same time, the salaries of female scientists were considerably lower than those of men. “That is another attraction of Photograph 51. It is a play, by a woman, about a very strong woman, and it invites us to look at the way women are treated in science today by looking at the subject through the prism of the past,” added Grandage.
Kidman’s portrayal of Franklin will be her first performance on the London stage since she appeared in The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse in 1998. Described as “pure theatrical Viagra” by one critic, the play – in which Kidman had a brief nude scene – was a sellout.
“Nicole wanted to come back to the London stage, but was clear she did not want to perform in an old play by Tennessee Williams or Rattigan or something like that,” added Grandage.
“She said she wanted to play in something that was new and which had a powerful female character in it. Photograph 51 fitted that bill perfectly, particularly because it resonates so much with her father. She was enthusiastic about the play from the moment we sent it to her. I had no idea her father was a scientist until she revealed how significant this play was to her background.”
Photograph 51 has been staged before, briefly, in New York, but was relatively unknown. The author, Anna Ziegler, has done a fair amount of rewriting in terms of the science, added Grandage, though the play remains structurally the same. “It has taken us three years to find the right play, and this is it,” he said.
Women scientists who didn’t get due credit for their work.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Astrophysicist (b. 1943). Discovered the first radio pulsars. Her supervisor Antony Hewish shared the Nobel in physics.
Physicist (1912-1997). Disproved the idea that when subatomic particles mirror each other exactly they behave identically. Her two colleagues received a 1957 Nobel prize, but Wu was left out.
Microbiologist (1922-2006). Developed techniques that helped scientists understand how genes work. Her work helped her first husband, Joshua Lederberg, to win a 1958 Nobel.
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