new on television: the secret behind the secret of life

With all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the momentous discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA — the secret of life — by James Watson and Francis Crick, it’s good to know that a relatively unsung contributor is getting some attention, too. Tonight, in “Secret of Photo 51,” Nova profiles scientist Rosalind Franklin and her unwitting collaboration in the breakthrough: Her data and notes were used without her permission or knowledge.

Franklin’s work was crucial in establishing the molecule’s structure. It was her X-ray photo that gave Watson and Crick the essential experimental evidence they lacked. As Watson writes in his breezy, best-selling 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, “The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.”

Ironically, Watson is largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in Franklin. His book’s caricature of Frankin as “the terrible Rosy,” a frumpy bluestocking who didn’t understand her own data, only served to motivate others to set the record straight. Many of those people are interviewed for the program — schoolmates, friends from her Paris years, other scientific collaborators. Some of the drama’s key players are interviewed, too, including Maurice Wilkins, her King’s College colleague who showed Photo 51 to Watson, and Raymond Gosling, the doctoral student who helped her create it. Watson refused to be interviewed for the program.

Franklin came from a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family and attended the University of Cambridge, from which she received a doctorate in physical chemistry and where she learned X-ray crystallography, which is used to determine the structure of molecules by bombarding them with X-rays. As her biographer Brenda Maddox explains, Franklin became one of the few people in the world for whom “tiny specks of matter were as real as billiard balls.”

After working at a national laboratory in Paris, Franklin accepted a post at King’s College London in 1951 to study DNA, and unknowingly entered “an undeclared race to uncover the secret of life.” After the cosmopolitan collegiality of Paris, King’s, with its male-only common room, old-boy network, and boisterous beer drinking, revolted her. She didn’t fit in – not by gender, religion, class, or temperament. There was an intense personality clash between the fiery, argumentative Franklin and the shy, diffident Wilkins, who was supposed to be her closest colleague. Feeling increasingly shut out of his own laboratory, Wilkins commiserated about “Rosy” with his old friend Crick at Cambridge. It was Wilkins who inadvertently served as the main conduit of Franklin’s work. Franklin never knew how much her data influenced Watson and Crick, but it was her experimental framework that helped them determine DNA’s structure. Upon seeing the famous model, Franklin accepted it immediately. And why shouldn’t she? It was based on her data.

Franklin left King’s after two unhappy years and continued a distinguished career cut short at age 37 by cancer.

When Watson and Crick won their Nobel prizes for the discovery in 1962, they didn’t acknowledge her work. Wilkins, who was also honored, only mentioned her in passing. Franklin was not even in the running because Nobels aren’t awarded posthumously.

During the program, Franklin’s last collaborator, Nobel prize-winner Aaron Klug, goes over her notebooks, and shows how close she was to solving DNA’s structure. Unfortunately, though close, Franklin did not make the intuitive leap. Nonetheless, being close is not close enough. It is Watson and Crick who are in the history books. According to Maddox, the tragedy is not that Franklin didn’t win a Nobel, but that she died so young.

While the film is focused on Franklin’s life, it also provides explanations of the key scientific concepts. There are animations of how X-ray crystallography works and what information Photo 51 provided to Watson and Crick. Interviews with researchers – who happen, not coincidentally, to be women — help explain what DNA is and how it is studied.

The film’s only problem is its melodramatic recreations of key events. Considering the actors don’t have to talk — the program is narrated by Sigourney Weaver — couldn’t actors who more physically resembled Watson and Crick be found? Combined with the heavy-handed soundtrack, these segments, which look like pantomime recreations of a crime on America’s Most Wanted, distract from an otherwise intelligent and engrossing program.

Secret of Photo 51
Airs at 8 p.m. tonight on WGBH-TV (Channel 2).
Find the Web companion to the program at

This review appeared in the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 4/22/2003.
This entry was posted in boston globe, reviews. Bookmark the permalink.