Seeing DNA, and seeing Rosalind Franklin

by | Dec 5, 2017 | Crick and Watson, DNA, Rosalind Franklin, Visualising DNA | 0 comments

Much of this project looks at how people visualise DNA. In the main this means the ways that consumers of DNA testing might conceive of themselves in relation to a ‘model’ or structure of a double-helix. So I’m really interested, for instance, in the phenomenon of ‘DNA Art’ that seeks to present the buyer with a ‘self-portrait’. There is also some really interesting – if creepy – art being made of ‘left-behind’ DNA, that is, genetic matter found lying around (I’m kind of convinced this last is a hoax)…. That is covered in another blog.

For this entry I’m interested in thinking about ‘actually’ visualizing DNA.

The double-helix is, famously, a structure, a model, something we’ve never really been able to ‘see’ and so therefore lives as a theory, a concept, a presumption. I’m not, of course, denying it exists, but simply that we have had to work with it as a concept that we can prove rather than a thing we can see for decades. This matters, as ‘ocular proof’ is important to the historical imagination, but also because as DNA becomes increasingly part of people’s self-definition the thing itself is important. Jenny Reardon argues this:

is genomics a domain that only members of the scientific and technological elite (e.g. the digirati) can understand and participate in? Or can it be democratized and extended to all persons (e.g., the lay public)? If it can be democratized, who counts as a person in the democratic polities that PG envisions?[1]

Having access – visual, imagined, material, or physical – to the stuff of life is key. Any translation or meditation process needs to be carefully examined for its ethical, power, and cultural implications. Similarly many philosophers and historians of science have pointed out that analogy, model, approximation, illustration, and the like, are all ways of translating theory into visual/ material knowledge. They are methods for thinking about molecules in space, supposing and understanding the dimensionality of molecular structure. Dorothy Hodgkin’s representation of insulin is probably the most famous, after, of course, DNA. It is interesting how structures and models can often become substitutes for the ‘real’ thing, but, moreover, how those who reveal them – Hodgkin, Crick & Watson,

Mary B. Hesse argued this in 1966:

[from Models and Analogies in Science (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), p. 1.] The interlinking of ‘model’, imagined structure, visualization, theory and cultural understanding is powerful. In discussion at the recent ‘Molecules and Models – Seeing Structures’ at Durham University’s Centre for Visual Arts and Culture several people wondered about the pre-eminence, and centrality, of the double-helix in this phenomenon. I’m particularly concerned, in my work, to think about how this relates to historical understanding and awareness. How does one conceive of the double helix in relation to the self? How does this relate to the DNA of others, particularly those in one’s family tree?

It is, of course, not the case that we can’t ‘see’ DNA. Over the past few years several groups have reported that they had succeeded in visualizing DNA directly. Enzo di Fabrizio and his team use an electron microscope and innovative techniques in ‘mounting’ the DNA to produce images. Bart Hoogenboom’s team use Atomic Force Microscopy to similarly visualize the structure (thanks to Phil East for the reference). Yet this work is still extremely precise, relatively (at a nano-level) inexact, and not really popularly circulated. I would submit that the ‘double-helix’ is pretty much ingrained in the popular imagination, and it does powerful cultural, political, and intellectual work. A good example of this might be the opening credits to X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), in which DNA mutates through a constantly shifting double helix.

Prompted by the Durham conference I started looking at the original paper published by Crick and Watson in their 1953 article “Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid” Nature, 171: 4356 (1953), 737–738. It is such a brief paper but so important. What is interesting for me at the moment is the way that the paper models the structure of DNA, which was all important in their description, and illustrates it:

The note at the bottom of the page here reads: ‘This figure is purely diagrammatic. The two ribbons symbolize the two phosphate-sugar chains, and the horizontal rods the pairs of basis holding the pairs of bases holding the chains together. The vertical line marks the fibre axis’ (my emphasis, p. 737). The point is that from the very beginning of our ‘understanding’ of the structure it was always something to be conceived of, illustrated, imagined, ‘diagrammatic’ rather than seen – as demonstrated by the famous model of DNA that Crick and Watson unveiled to the world (in contrast to the no less important, but less interpretable, ‘Photograph 51’ that Rosalind Franklin produced). DNA has a particular structure – they describe it – but it also must be illustrated in two-dimensions, rendered, articulated.

If our understanding of DNA is founded upon an image, a model, a translation of something that was hitherto unseeable, then this is tremendously interesting. The foundation of life itself is unperceivable, apart, of course, in the physical actuality of the human beings walking around. Indeed, the ‘human’ is the model of DNA made specific, the theory turned flesh.

Crick, Watson, the model

‘Photograph 51’

This week has also led me to think a bit about the reputation of Rosalind Franklin. Any discussion of ‘seeing’ DNA has to come back to her X-ray photography and crystallography, and the impact it had on the development of the double-helix model.

This is how the 1953 article refers to her:

Whilst Crick & Watson are, of course, the key people in the public imagination (Crick gives his name to the new genetic research Institute in London, for instance), increasingly the work is understood as a collaboration or collection. For instance, the UK National Curriculum Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) suggests the teaching of ‘a simple model of chromosomes, genes and DNA in heredity, including the part played by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin in the development of the DNA model’. Wikipedia lists numerous ways that Franklin is remembered and celebrated (under ‘Posthumous recognition’, from about 1982), but public representation and popular articulation is relatively rare.

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51

Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51, which was developed in 2008 and premiered in New York in 2010, strives to ‘see’ Franklin. Its revival in 2015 in London with Nicole Kidman as Franklin was an important moment in the public and popular rendering of her life and reputation (on this, why no films of the DNA ‘race’ other than the 1987 Life Story?).

Critics responding to the play uniformly mentioned how Franklin’s ‘vital contribution to uncovering the structure of DNA has been marginalised’, her work ‘had been, and still are to a great extent, sadly overlooked’, or how ‘she has never been given the credit accorded to her rivals and colleagues’. Indeed, Steve Connor writes about how Ziegler’s play ‘attempts to redress the balance’ and hence the text is clearly seen as something of a revisionist, reclamatory drama. It tells us something occluded, unseen, important but somehow unperceived. From a public history perspective the reclamation of Franklin’s reputation is an important act.

Reading the playtext (having seen the show in London in 2016) I’m struck by how Kidman made Franklin ‘live’ (something Ben Brantley in the New York Times notes). The text itself is relatively cold, but Kidman’s Franklin was a tremendous, precise, sometimes imperious presence. This interrelationship between the imagined (textualised) and the physical is of course the stuff of the play itself. The drama of DNA is found in the tension between model and thing, articulation and object.

Photograph 51 makes DNA into a mysterious thing again, something pre-double-helix, something mystifying that cannot be reduced to a simple model; understanding it is the stuff of a life’s work. It is part of the re-historicizing of DNA, a way of recollecting that such scientific work was produced at a very precise historical moment. Ziegler focuses on the ‘story of the race to the double helix’ although prefaces her play with a disclaimer: ‘a work of fiction. I have altered timelines, facts and events, and recreated characters for dramatic purposes’.[2] It is a biographical drama on science, echoing Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998) in its complex rendering of theoretical science through dramatizing human relationships. Revolving mainly around Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, and very fluidly staged, the play considers some key themes relating to DNA: what we can see, what we know, how we know it, how perspective matters, and the beauty of life. It also adds some particularly useful tropes from scientific biography: competition; the loneliness of research; the danger of pride.

The play resists the notion of DNA being ‘authored’ but instead shows how various characters, particularly Watson, self-dramatised the importance of particular moments (‘There’s an element of fate to it’ he says early in the play, ‘To be born at the right time’, p. 27; later, when Wilkins seems to reject working with him, he says ‘Was it the biggest mistake of his life. Without question’, p. 29). In particular, the moment Franklin sees Photograph 51 she ‘becomes’ different, somehow – although possibly without understanding it: ‘And she stood there, staring at the photograph, as though she were looking in a mirror but was suddenly unrecognizable to herself’ (p. 45). Drama often works by showing an audience the inside of someone’s head, somehow – Copenhagen’s great contribution is to suggest that no one knows anything about the world other than that which they perceive – and Photograph 51 is in many ways about not understanding what one can see, the distinction between what is visual and what is known.

It also dramatizes the urge to investigate, and contrasts a kind of male will to ‘control’ with Franklin’s more stolid devotion to ‘the work’. She is enthralled by the beauty of the natural world but not desiring to control it; in contrast, Don Caspar says this about X-ray photography:’ as though you and you alone possess the superhuman powers that allow you to see into the heart of things. To understand the nature of the world as though it’s a secret no one else is meant to know’ (p. 34). This sense of peering at nature is relatively common in scientific discourse, here given to a male character in echo of the hundreds of male scientists that have claimed to draw back the veil of nature. In contrast to this type of thinking about ‘life’, Ziegler suggests that male pomposity kept Franklin back, both in terms of preventing her from accessing key moments and also because her colleagues resented her manner and were less loyal to her than they might have been. She is inescapably the only woman onstage, unique but also isolated and alone. Two of the male scientists onstage seek to ‘understand’ and ‘see’ her properly, but they both fail eventually. She resists this, and is unknown to them – but not the audience, who ‘see’ her real character in an unspoken moment late in the play when she acknowledges her loneliness to herself but does not say it out loud.

Franklin’s loneliness, her solitariness, her unique, non-doubled quality, is emphasised throughout. Glibly the play argues that ‘There’s no science that can explain it. Loneliness’ (p. 71), suggesting a kind of melancholy that can’t be understood – ‘seen’ – by scientific means. By making the search for DNA something that is expressed through one woman’s lonely desire for meaning, the play personalises the science, makes it emotionally comprehendible, something that the audience can ‘see’. The human is the model of the DNA, the emotional body that navigates between molecule and time. Franklin’s last, sad speech before her death – in answer to the question ‘what do you want?’ – reveals the play’s concern with what has been lost, rather than what might be found: ‘to be kissed, to feel important, to learn how to be okay being with other people, and also how to be alone. To be a child again, held up and admired, the world full of endless future’ (p. 71). Throughout Franklin and Wilkins have discussed Peter Brook’s 1951 production of The Winter’s Tale and this is an important intertext about sadness, loss, misplaced hope (although the joke – a meta-joke about Franklin and her status as the lost female scientist – is that neither of them can remember who played Hermione in the production (it was Diana Wynyard).

Somewhat problematically the play seems to suggest that Franklin was unfulfilled and that her work was simply not enough – or that she worked so hard due to an unacknowledged emptiness. However, the sense of enquiry being a way of giving shape and meaning to that which is unknowable – life – is a key motif to the work. As she says before she dies, ‘’We lose. In the end, we lose. The work is never finished’ (p. 75).

Photograph 51 has some address to cliché – the Winter’s Tale intertext, the lonely childless female pioneer – but it also contributes to the surge in Franklin’s public reputation and the various ways she might be imagined and celebrated. The play’s concern with what is seen, and unseen, and with how different ways of looking might reveal many different things, similarly contributes to the wider comprehension of how visualisation contributed to the recognition of DNA (‘to Rosalind, making a model was tantamount to negligence’ says Crick, p. 38).

The play’s fluid range of concepts – it reaches post-war Britain, ambition, gender, investigation, plagiarism, sadness and higher mathematics – means that it is self-consciously complex. Historiographically it suggests that which has not been seen, and also reminds us that ‘facts’, even in relation to the ‘revealing’ of something true and real, might be more complicated than they first seem. However it also suggests that discovery is something that can only be understood and explained through a range of considerations – personal, chemical, economic, social, gendered. DNA is not ‘seen’ in Photograph 51, but made even more complicated and beautiful.


[1] Jenny Reardon, ‘The “persons” and “genomics” of personal genomics’, Personalized Medicine 8:1 (2011), 95-107 (p. 96).

[2] Photograph 51 (London: Oberon books, 2015), p. 7.


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