Weekend Highlights

Published February 13, 2013
Health & Development

A Parent’s Review: Photograph 51

by Cheryl Murfin
seattle child article photo
Brian Earp and Kirsten Potter in Photograph 51 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Photo by Alan Alabastro.

seattle child article photo
MJ Sieber and Ben Harris in Photograph 51 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Photo by Alan Alabastro.

In an age when just about anyone can pick up a camera and take a breathtaking shot, the shadowy “X” at the center of Rosalind Franklin’s benignly named “Photograph 51” might seem a little, well, benign. But the image, which scientist Franklin created in the 1950s using then-cutting edge X-ray crystallography, was the key to unraveling one of life’s biggest mysteries – the double helix structure of DNA.

Not that Franklin got much credit for this critical discovery.

Held back by sexism and her own stubborn refusal to truly collaborate with male peers, Franklin “lost” this particular scientific race – she did not get a byline in the scientific journals that first published the structure her image helped reveal. Franklin’s image, as well as her determination to be an equal among men of science, was the missing piece used by scientists Francis Crick and James Watson to create the first map of DNA.

Franklin’s triumph, challenges and untimely death are the subject of the new play Photograph 51, written by Anna Ziegler and on stage now through March 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For young scientists, the show offers a tightly written, well-acted, fascinating look at one of science’s most pressured competitions. For young women interested scientific pursuits, the show is a must see. Even as it is maddening for its depiction of the sexism faced by female science pioneers just a few decades ago (Franklin’s colleague in the lab refuses to call her Dr. Franklin, although she always addresses him by this honorific), the play is inspiring. It highlights not only what a woman scientist accomplished, but gives viewers some perspective on how far women have come in this arena.

Photograph 51 starts as Franklin is appointed to the King’s College lab. Expecting to lead the lab’s X-ray program, Franklin is surprised to learn on arrival that she is to “assist” scientist Maurice Wilkins instead. She is prepared to walk out the door if the problem is not rectified, a bold move for a woman in this era.

Rather than see Franklin leave the appointment, Wilkins agrees that they will co-direct the lab’s efforts to discover the structure of DNA. But the rocky start leaves the two scientists forever at odds, making any true collaboration impossible. Eventually frustrated by Franklin’s lack of collegiality, Wilkins shares Franklin's image of DNA – showing its double helix structure – with Crick and Watson, without her knowledge or consent. They use the ill-gotten information to publish before Franklin can fully unravel the structure.

Franklin is tireless in her work, staying late at the lab, never socializing and pulling more than her share. Eventually a young grad student enters her life, giving her a glimpse of the life she is missing.

Love and recognition come too late, however. Soon after Crick and Watson take her finding as their own (failing to give her adequate credit for her mystery-cracking image), Franklin is diagnosed with cancer. She died at age 37.

The play is based on many of the true elements of Franklin’s life and is an intriguing portrait of the British scientist, although Ziegler has taken poetic license and has filled in the gaps of available information for some of the relationship points in the show. Post-play discussions at the Rep will take place Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 17 and 27 at 2 p.m.

My 17-year-old daughter attended the opening night of Photograph 51 with me and walked away inspired to follow her own scientific pursuits. She hopes other teens will see the show. Along with an interesting human story, it highlights interesting science in easy-to-understand language.

“I think this would be a great field trip for high schoolers,” she said. “It’s an amazing story and really well done.”

I concur. Not only does it give a sense of how far women in the sciences have come, it gives one courageous pioneer her due.

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If You Go...

Where:  Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle.

When:  Now through March 10; Wednesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Cost: Tickets range from $30-$70. Anyone 25 and younger may purchase tickets for only $12 for any performance (with ID – call for details).

Contact: 206-443-2222, www.seattlerep.org.

More About This Story...

Click here to download of copy of the parent/teacher study guide for Photograph 51.