Thursday, April 24, 2003

Rosalind Franklin won't leave me alone.

Her story came up recently in an e-conversation I had with some friends; only days later, PBS showed The Secret of Photo 51, the story of how Franklin's work was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The difficulty of telling Franklin's story is one of depth; at one time, most readers knew of her only from James Watson's near hatchet job in The Double Helix. Later, her friend Anne Sayre wrote the sympathetic Rosalind Franklin and DNA which defended Franklin's considerable scientific accomplishments but minimized her prickly personality.

We don't often allow our important figures of the past their full humanity, and this becomes even more of a problem when we expect that figure to represent a whole group. Franklin was clearly discriminated against because she was a woman, and perhaps also -- although this is rarely mentioned -- because she was Jewish, at a time in which anti-Semitism, like sexism, was a nasty fact of life in both British and American universities. However, she was also clearly respected as a scientist; if not by Watson, certainly by her earlier and later co-workers in Paris and London. We learn many things about her from more recent biographies; for example, contrary to the stereotypes, she had many friends and an active social life. She loved Paris, and French fashion and cuisine, and was fluent in French. When she was a graduate student during World War II, her research had important applications in the design of gas masks; after she left Cambridge and the DNA project, she published important papers on viral structure (her contributions to virology are noted in her epitaph).

The shabby treatment of Franklin by Watson was part of multiple, deeper problems. First, Franklin was pitted against colleague Maurice Wilkins by one of science's truly most stupid administrative screwups; their boss hired her as Wilkins' peer but led Wilkins to believe she would be his assistant. To compound the unpleasantness, the boss took away one of Wilkins' projects -- and his graduate student -- and assigned both to Franklin in Wilkins' absence. By all accounts, Franklin knew nothing of these machinations. She didn't put up with patronizing questions, while Wilkins tended to seethe in silence. The temperature of that laboratory must have been frosty, and the ability to shut out the people and focus on the work a basic survival skill.

Second, Watson's very public reputation for abrasiveness has long extended past his poor working relationship with Franklin (read E. O. Wilson's Naturalist for an interesting take on Watson's ecumenism in this regard). Watson's brilliance is also unchallenged in scientific circles; a man or woman can have the approachability of a porcupine and still possess a stellar mind. Which is, in many ways, the whole point. On a scale of intuitive brilliance, Watson is generally regarded as a 10 out of 10. On a similar scale of methodical, process-oriented, relentlessly focused scientific inquiry, Franklin's ability usually gets the same 10. Watson would probably have beaten Franklin on the take-no-prisoners scale, but she would certainly have earned a respectably high score. Watson still gets the accolades, though, and yielded to Franklin only his snide comments about her failure to wear lipstick to the lab. The justice is that the backlash provoked by The Double Helix began the slow rehabilitation of Franklin's reputation.

I can't imagine what it would be like to be forbidden to eat lunch with my male colleagues in a college dining room, or to sip a beer or a soft drink in a pub with them afterwards. (I also can't imagine the feelings of a good friend of mine when he returned from combat on Iwo Jima only to have his college plans disrupted when he ran afoul of his first-choice school's Jewish quota; every act of petty discrimination reverberates against the whole.) Most likely, had the Watson-Crick-Wilkins-Franklin collaboration been truly collegial instead of a nightmare of clashing personalities and pinched data, the group would still have figured out the structure of DNA and become justly famous for it. But I can't help thinking it would have been much more fun had they all been able to sit down for a beer in the same place at the same time after work, and truly enjoyed one another's company to a man and to a woman.

In the meantime, there's the memory of Rosalind Franklin, who loved hiking and good friends and good food and a good argument, and above all the process (not just the result!) of scientific inquiry. My own very recent memories of such a process are of spending a two-hour stretch in the greenhouse, maintaining 30 breeding cages one at a time; of sitting down at the bench to load 192 PCR tubes, then setting up three dozen DNA isolation reactions before going home for the night; of plugging 102 genotype records into a software program and spending hours reviewing the output for the presence population-wide patterns. The project, and the thousands of other similar works in progress around the world, would not have been practical without the work of Watson and Crick and Wilkins -- and Franklin.

I appreciate the mentorship I got along the way, and the hours in the dining hall and in the pub with my teachers and fellow students, and the fact that no one relegated me to the back room because I was female, or too old, or a member of a religious minority. I want the process back, as soon as possible. At least in retrospect, it was at least as much fun as the discovery, and life is clearly too short to postpone it. And those are the probable reasons why, at least for now, Rosalind Franklin won't leave me alone.