Inspired by one professor's infectious enthusiasm for Emily Dickinson, Obsessed is a new HuffPost Culture series exploring the idiosyncratic, all-consuming passions of public figures and unknowns alike. Through a mix of blogs and interviews, these pieces will highlight the elusiveness of whatever it is you just can't live without -- whether it's blue jays, Renaissance fairs, fan fiction, or in the case of David Lynch, coffee.
I first heard of Rosalind Franklin during my freshmen year of studies at Harvard College. I was taking the core course "Science and Society in the 20th-Century" and we had been assigned to read James Watson's memoir The Double Helix. I recall sitting in a section meeting and my teaching fellow noting how now we knew more about Rosalind Franklin's role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin was the female British scientist whose unpublished experimental data obtained from x-ray diffraction techniques provided much of the foundational information needed to solve the structure of DNA. However, she did not receive joint authorship or adequate credit for her contributions to the discovery while she was alive. I remember thinking this sounded like an intriguing story and something I'd like to learn more about someday.
Flash forward to several years later. I was living in Los Angeles and working for Hollywood movie producers while working on various spec scripts in my free time. David Auburn's play Proof about a mathematician and his daughter, and Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen about Heisenberg and Bohr's mysterious walk in the woods, had recently opened to great acclaim. Dramatic subjects about mathematics and science were in the air and capturing the public imagination. I remembered the reference to Rosalind Franklin in my section meeting and decided to see if I could find a play or screenplay in the story.
At first, my interest in Rosalind Franklin's story was merely biographical. Brenda Maddox had not yet published her comprehensive biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. So I began my research with Anne Sayre's biography Rosalind Franklin and DNA. Anne Sayre and Brenda Maddox also attended Harvard College and I sometimes wondered whether the Franklin story universally offended the smart girl's sense of justice. But Anne Sayre had also been Rosalind Franklin's personal friend. Watson had misrepresented Franklin in The Double Helix as an unfashionable and ill-tempered woman who hoarded her data, but Franklin had died a few years after the discovery and could not defend herself. Anne Sayre's biography tried to present a more accurate portrait of Franklin's character.
After reading Sayre's book, I still had questions and wanted to know more. I tracked down Franklin's original scientific articles, Watson and Crick's Nobel Prize speeches, and countless other books and articles written directly or indirectly about the topic. I visited the American Society for Microbiology's archive in Baltimore, which contained all the original interviews and research materials Sayre used to write her biography. I ordered the screenplay to the BBC's movie about the topic Life Story with Juliet Stevenson playing Rosalind Franklin and Jeff Goldblum as Watson. I spoke to Professor Donald Caspar, an American and one of Franklin's last collaborators. I even had the opportunity to interview Francis Crick over the phone before he died. He advised me to write a play about the Nobel Prize winning x-ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin instead.
I tried writing a play about Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the structure of DNA, but it never quite worked. I had approached the topic straight on. But I was staying too close to the facts, and unlike Mike Daisey refusing to embellish or exaggerate for dramatic effect. Then I attempted writing a screenplay, which also did not work. First, the story had a downer ending. Franklin died young of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 never knowing the extent to which Watson and Crick had used her experimental data. Second, I had my mother read it and she found it overly scientific and technical. I became increasingly aware that not all stories make good plays or screenplays. I began to realize that my interest in Rosalind Franklin was not in the biographical details, but the palpable sense of injustice surrounding her story.
Ever since college, I had been interested in intellectual property law and often thought of going law school. I was somehow not surprised to learn that Anne Sayre had gone to law school after she wrote her biography. I decided to make a major career change and apply to law school. I wanted to learn more about what kind of intellectual property law protections Franklin might have had for her scientific discoveries. Imagine my surprise when I learned in law school that intellectual property law does not protect scientific discoveries or attribution rights in scientific discoveries. Instead, credit and claims to priority for scientific discoveries are largely determined by the norms of the scientific profession. So during law school, I wrote a draft law journal article about whether there should be intellectual property law protections for those who make scientific discoveries relying on the example of Rosalind Franklin.
Last year I had the opportunity to see Anna Ziegler's play Photograph 51 about Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the structure of DNA. The play is largely biographical, but takes liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. However, the play still left me thinking about what life lessons Franklin's story offers us. Some might regard her life as just another example of a martyr to the patriarchy story similar to Sylvia Plath and Camille Claudel. But the Franklin story also involves the universal desire of being able to obtain credit and recognition for your work without being cheated out of it by workplace politics. The example has served me well in my own professional life when I have needed to stand up for myself and negotiate credit in the workplace.
Rosalind Franklin never married or had children. She was devoted to her work as a scientist. The greatest harm she suffered was reputational. But in science, reputation is everything. She did not become a superstar scientist. She did not become a Watson or a Crick. I cannot help but wonder if a woman had been recognized as a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in the 1950's, whether the views about women in science would have been vastly different. For example, Larry Summers' comments several years ago attributing innate differences between men and women as the reason why women were not successful in science and math, would have appeared anachronistic. In the end, society suffered the greatest loss.
Originally published in Huffington Post.