Searching for DNA’s Dark Lady

franklinEver since the 1960s every discussion on James Watson and Rosalind Franklin seems to start from Watson’s 1968 book The Double Helix. As the first account – and first impression – of the story of DNA discovery, it has become a lasting reference point in such a way that it has “polluted” all later histories when trying to assess characterisations of Franklin and how much credit would she deserve. In Watson’s much influential book, Rosalind Franklin isintroduced as Rosy. She is a strict scientist, with belligerent moods, that did not share her results and did not care much about her looks and fashion. This simpleminded description of Franklin was bound to mark the start of endless variable conversations. Indeed, Watson’s character of Rosyhas dominated her most notable biographies.

Apparently, according to the other big player in the discovery of the DNA, Francis Crick, Watson, in writing the manuscript Honest Jim (as was its initially intended title), was for the first time specific about the source and nature of Franklin’s data, being honest at least about that. Watson, however, could not have given the world his Rosy if Rosalind had been alive; interestingly her passing is not mentioned in his book. He began writing it three years after winning the Nobel Prize, but Harvard University Press dropped it, complying to serious oppositions by Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind’s brother Colin Franklin, and Max Perutz. Indifferent to Franklin’s postmortem fame, Watson published the book anyway with its initial content and this has to be an indication of his feelings about her. Moreover, despite being very concerned that Wilkins should not be left out of the famous Nature publication, Watson did not bother to mention Franklin’s work.

Moving away from The Double Helix, in, what appears as its “sequel”, Watson’s 2002 book Genes, Girls and Gamow, most interestingly Rosy does not exist anymore. There are some references to her in the publication but none with this controversial nickname; also, in this book it is clear that Franklin has passed away. All in all, Watson retained an egocentric character but seemed somewhat more respectful towards Franklin, perhaps revealing that he would not wish to repeat his much-criticized portrayal of her.


Rosalind Franklin’s contradictive portrayals

Following publication of The Double Helix, Franklin’s portrayals vary from being completely unappreciated to rising to a feminist symbol. Understanding The Double Helix requires an objective description of the life of Rosalind Franklin. Despite not being a feminist herself, she became a mythologised feminist icon, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male. Feminist texts by Mary Ellmann and Elizabeth Janeway attacked Watson as misogynist. In ensuing decades, the myth of the wronged heroine grew, nourished by her early death. She has become the symbol of women’s lowly position in the pantheon of science, with critical readings aiming at disproving Watson’s Double Helix conclusions. However, the most obvious trap would be to idolize Franklin because of Watson’s clearly disrespectful account. Not being initially considered an important figure in the evolution of molecular biology, it is now appreciated that Franklin could have achieved international reputation in three different fields of scientific research. The fact that she is widely recognised as a victim of human injustice is the result of James Watson’s writings.


Franklin’s true personality

In fact, there is a huge gap missing in the story, and that is Franklin’s personal view. Unluckily, we have to count on third party accounts to complete the picture. While Franklin appears as an intelligent, perfectionist scientist who showed a fully serious interest in her work, in terms of her personality there seems to exist quite a few pieces of evidence both adding to Watson’s portrayal of her as difficult to work with and justifying her manners.

Maurice Wilkins – who initially welcomed her as he was not really qualified into X-Ray diffraction technique –had pointed out that both men and women were working in their lab and settled in well. However, Honor Fell, one of the 8 women working in Randall’s group at King’s, told in an interview that she saw no sign of sex discrimination against Franklin, and that both Franklin and Wilkins were rather difficult people. Franklin seemed unready to join the informal socializing among the women in those days of food rationing. Another of the women in the lab, Mary Fraser, wrote that Rosalind did not seem to want to mix with her manner and speech being rather brusque. For Wilkins himself, Franklin’s attitude and manner was often difficult to deal with as she was generally more aggressive and at times could seem pleased to find a mistake in his work, thus being almost terrifying. Despite initially trying to deal with her bark, and writing a letter about the dark lady leaving when she moved to Birkbeck College, Wilkins later admitted that it was possible that he respected her too much to stand up more to her, which led Franklin to be aggressive towards him and not share her results.


This popular picture of Franklin as a smart scientist who mistakenly worked in isolation, was moreover amplified by Aaron Klug – the man who inherited Franklin’s notebooks and won the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1982 while later became president of the Royal Society – who had stated that Franklin could have been famous for having discovered DNA (as she had the data to do it) if she had just talked to Francis Crick for an hour. In Watson’s view she had been destroyed by her prejudices. However, this also seems a simpleminded generalization. It is perhaps undeniable that Franklin spent 27 unhappy months at King’s College. Realising she had made a mistake coming to the cold atmosphere of King’s, she soon began looking for another lab at the University of London. Her difficulty to fit in that lab, along with the fact that she was prickly and did not make friends easily, could be the reason that led her to express an unpleasant side of herself, despite on other occasions creating meaningful relationships in which her affections were deep, strong and lasting. This is the most important missing piece where her own account would be invaluable, as she notably was impressed by and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Francis Crick who respected her. On the other hand, during that period, there is no reason to consider that she liked the sight of Watson, often being upset with his interferences.


A twist to the story

Several reports miss out on the interactions between Franklin, Watson and their collaborators as they moved on from DNA structure to new problems. These provide an interesting twist to the story as it seems that they got along in friendly terms in their later contacts.

In 1954, Franklin travelled to the US and she was greeted by Watson (then at Caltech) in Woods Hole; for him, she was pleasant and eager to talk about the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) and he characterized her visit as amiable despite fearing that it might easily go awkward. Late in 1954, Franklin drafted a paper on the structural features of TMV and circulated it among several colleagues, including Watson. Their correspondence on her early work on TMV was civil, even friendly and she represented herself and Watson as cooperating in their efforts to investigate the full range of plant viruses. In July 1955, visiting Franklin’s lab during a year back at Cambridge, Watson learned that her hostile, principal sponsor, Britain’s Agricultural Research Council was hesitant to buy a new X-ray diffractometer that she needed to maintain speed in her studies of TMV. Being in position to help, he brought the subject up in a dinner with the chairman of the council, and then hastened to write Franklin a short, friendly, but remarkably high-toned letter supporting and advising her on how to shape her proposal.

These facts seriously question the initial picture on their relationship of Franklin feeling that Watson invaded her privacy and him impugning her understanding of biology. Either Watson’s first account was intentionally extravagant or their personal relationship evolved in a different way over time, perhaps being initially heavily influenced by the occupation with DNA which, according to Wilkins, like Midas’ gold, brought together protagonists who shared brilliance, eminence, great ambitions and great vanity. The media stir (and the arising conflicting publications) around the principal players emerged as the outside scientific community and the public gradually realised it was something novel, outstanding and unexpected.


At a personal level, the relations between James Watson and Rosalind Franklin around DNA should be viewed as part of a longer historical trajectory. In fact, their interactions intensified after 1953. After leaving King’s College, Franklin did not regard Watson and Crick as enemies, but as colleagues. Her relations with Watson were clearly more complicated; in the mid-1950s their interactions were friendly, but the friction of competition also comes through in letters and reminiscences. They influenced each other as, on the one hand, Watson did not continue work on TMV when he realized that Franklin had surpassed his research, and she revealed a willingness to publish speculative models based on early interpretations of the data – an attitude attributable largely to Watson and Crick. Aaron Klug regarded, in a way, Watson as Franklin’s closest collaborator. Later on, on various occasions in public lectures, Watson seemed to try to justify himself with a continuing sense of unease which may well derive from the use of Franklin’s experimental data without telling her openly – not even in the subsequent years of their friendly collaboration. While the above fit a description of a common, slightly complicated, scientific relationship, theirs was to be lastingly stamped by The Double Helix.

The overview of their relationship, presented in the previous paragraphs, as recorded by various historians, still does not clarify the picture of the creation of Rosy which stirred the lasting debate around what is usually regarded as the greatest triumph of British science in the 20th century. It is not really the issue of the Nobel Prize winners that matters, despite both Watson and Crick seemingly wondering on Franklin’s position. It is more how The Double Helix, which grew to become one of the most read books for those going into life sciences, frames our understanding of science.

Historically, we can look at this book as a reconstruction of a sequence of events, as a characterization of certain people and their position in a discovery. Ending up describing science in many conversations, The Double Helix undertakes positional superiority in ways that are really manipulative, especially regarding the portrayal of Rosy Franklin. In this context, it seems more rational to treat this book as a work of fiction, which reads like a novel complete with characterisations. As such, Rosy was not recognizable as the Rosalind Franklin her friends knew; Watson hid Rosalind and created Rosy, the female grotesque that we are taught to fear or despise. This characterization remains extremely widespread despite their later friendly relationship or the contradicting literature.

Therefore, drawing towards the conclusion, and keeping in mind all the known aspects of the story on their relationship, it is time to attempt to answer, in fact, one single question: Why did Watson create Rosy the Witch? A first plausible hypothesis holds that the character was a rationalization of Watson’s guilt; a creature so hostile and uncooperative that there was no alternative to taking what you need by stealth. From a second, feminist point of view, the wicked Rosy is a variant of an older myth that traces back to Eve; the female is guiltier than the male. Lastly, undertaking the idea of a novel, in the work of fiction, Rosy was essential as villainess for the plot; extraneous details, such as later friendship or early death would have spoiled the narrative.



PS. Resources and further reading:

  • Creager, Angela and Morgan, Gregory J. 2008. ‘After the Double Helix: Rosalind Franklin’s research on Tobacco Mosaic Virus’. Isis 99: 239-272.
  • Crick, Francis. 1989. What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery. London: Penguin Books.
  • Davies, Mansel. 1990. ‘W. T. Astbury, Rosie Franklin, and DNA: A memoir’. Annals of Science 47: 607-618.
  • De Chadarevian, Soraya. 2002. Designs for Life: Molecular Biology after World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Glynn, Jennifer Franklin. 1996. ‘Rosalind Franklin’. In: Shils, E and Blacker, C (ed.). Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 267-282.
  • Judson, Horace Freeland. 1995. The Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology. New York: Touchstone Books.
  • Maddox, Brenda. 2002. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of the DNA. New York: Harper Collins.
  • McElheny, Victor. 2003. Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. New York: Perseus/Wiley.
  • Olby, Robert. 1974. The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Olby, Robert. 1990. ‘The Molecular Revolution in Biology’. In: Olby, Robert, Cantor, G., Christie, J. And Hodge, MJS (eds.). Companion to the History of Science. London: Routledge. pp. 503-520.
  • Olby, Robert. 2009. Francis Crick: Hunter of Life’s Secrets. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Press.
  • Sayre, Anne. 1975. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: WW Norton.
  • Selya, Rena. 2003. ‘Defined by DNA: The Intertwined Lives of James Watson and Rosalind Franklin’. Journal of the History of Biology 36: 591-597.
  • Stent, Gunther. 1980. James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: WW Norton.
  • Strauss, Bernard S. 2004. ‘Rosy and Jim: The Mystery of the Double Helix.’ Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47: 443-449.
  • Watson, James D. 2000. A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
  • Watson, James D. 2002. Genes, Girls and Gamow: After the Double Helix. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Watson, James D. 2007. Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science.
  • Wilkins, Maurice. 2003. The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press.