Scientist Gets Her Due in ‘Photograph 51’

Anna Ziegler
playwright, "Photograph 51" (2008)

Kristen Bush
actress

In 1952, scientist Rosalind Franklin took a clear X-ray photo of DNA. Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick used the image, in part, to determine the double helix — but did Franklin get the credit she deserved? Actress Kristen Bush and playwright Anna Ziegler discuss a new play on Franklin.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It's the early 1950s. The race is on to discover DNA's structure. They call it the secret of life. Research teams are vying for the trophy. Surely it's going to be a Nobel Prize.

There's Watson and Crick in Cambridge, Linus Pauling's in California, and at King's College in London there's Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

We all know the end of the story, of course: Watson and Crick discover the structure of the double-helix and share in the Nobel Prize. How did they do it? How did they figure it out? The story has - it's been told many times. We talked about it, how they relied in part on a key piece of evidence, a photograph that Rosalind Franklin took in her lab, and the photo showed two strands of DNA crisscrossed into a perfect X.

Did they get her data fairly? Was she cheated out of the recognition she deserved? The story is being re-examined in a new play, "Photograph 51," playing through November 21st at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York.

And I have some special guests from the play. Anna Ziegler is the playwright and many - of "Photograph 51," and she's also author of many other plays, including "Dov and Ali," "BFF," "Variations on a Theme" and "Life Science." She is the winner of the 2010 Douglas T. Ward Playwright Prize from NYU's Tisch School. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. ANNA ZIEGLER (Playwright, "Photograph 51"): Thank you.

FLATOW: Actress Kristen Bush is here. She plays the part of Rosalind Franklin. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. KRISTEN BUSH (Actress): Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: How did you prepare for this play?

Ms. BUSH: Oh, goodness. I read a lot. I studied up on my English accent, because Rosie was a Brit. And...

FLATOW: You called her Rosie.

Ms. BUSH: Well, I can call her that.

FLATOW: Because in the play, they say don't she says: Don't call me Rosie.

Ms. BUSH: I think after I've played her I get to call her Rosie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZIEGLER: She let some people call her Rosie.

Ms. BUSH: Yeah, the people she cared about.

FLATOW: What made you decide to tackle this subject?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Well, I think it's such a fascinating story. I mean, the human component that we see as part of one of the most major discoveries of the last century is really what drew me to it.

FLATOW: Because it's been written about, and there was actually some new papers that came out. Watson's original papers, did that affect the play at all?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Well, you know, it's funny. They came out right when we started rehearsals.

Ms. BUSH: Cricks, you mean?

Ms. ZIEGLER: The new letters that came out, yeah, that were Crick's correspondence with Wilkins. And I actually did incorporate some of what I learned from that into the play, though there wasn't that much time because I only learned about it when we were sort of a week into rehearsal.

FLATOW: Wow, wow.

Ms. ZIEGLER: But it was really fun to see it in the news right as we were working on it.

FLATOW: But it's a crucial element for Wilkins in the play, right?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Absolutely. No, he was I learned through reading Nicholas Wade's(ph) article that he was even more furious than I realized that Watson, that Watson and Crick had borrowed or stolen or, you know, used some of their work to get to their model.

FLATOW: As you play her in the play, Kristen, Rosalind Franklin is not the nicest person in the world.

Ms. BUSH: She's not soft and cuddly, no, no.

FLATOW: And that's how she was...

Ms. BUSH: That's the way that she was reported to be. And it's tough, I suppose, as an actor to play a part that isn't going to be instantaneously likeable, but I think the way that Anna's written it, and I think the way that she was in real life, you can realize why that might have been the case.

And Anna does a lovely job of making her really human. She's not just one-sided. She's just you know, she's not terrible the entire time.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. You felt that you portrayed her accurately.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I hope so. I mean, and I think Kristen's giving me a lot of credit where she gets a lot of it too, because she's done such a gorgeous job of giving her so much humanity.

She's neither just a sort of angry victim I mean nor is she someone who I think wasn't aware of her own flaws.

FLATOW: You don't really take sides very much.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I hope not.

FLATOW: In the play. Some people who have seen it have said that, you know, you've misportrayed her as one way or the other, but in watching the play myself I thought you - certainly right at the end you sort of summed up all the questions that remain unanswered about her.

Ms. ZIEGLER: By saying at the end that, you know, we really can't know, which is about the best way that you can conclude this, I think. There's no way that you can really understand what these people went through because it's over. Her story has ended.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you would like to talk about the play. It's "Photograph 51" at the Ensemble Studio Theater.

Did you have to embellish the love angle part of the play a little bit? I know there was something going on there, but I felt like you needed theatrically to make it a little more...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Absolutely. No, I took a fair bit of license with the story, and especially in that respect. There was never any indication that Wilkins was actually in love with Rosalind. So that was my own sort of fantasy that because there was so much antipathy between them, there must have been something underneath it.

Ms. BUSH: Although when Rosalind Franklin's brother came, he came during one of the previews, he...

FLATOW: Oh, is that right?

Ms. BUSH: Yes, he did. And he said to me afterwards, he said he remembers her coming home very, very angry one night because of some altercation she had with Wilkins. And he said: You know, Rosie, I believe you might be in love with him.

And she was livid about it. So you have to wonder if there are such strong emotions, what...

FLATOW: That she couldn't see it herself, but it was obvious to other people.

Ms. BUSH: Maybe so.

FLATOW: Maybe she just didn't want to admit it.

Ms. BUSH: Maybe not. Who knows?

FLATOW: Maybe not. What kind of reaction have you been getting from people?

Ms. ZIEGLER: I mean I think we've gotten a really strong reaction. It's really it's been really exciting. I've been gratified that scientists and non-scientists alike have seemed to enjoy the play and been engaged by it.

FLATOW: And it's really about the interpersonal relationships more than the science of this, isn't it?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Otherwise I would not have been able to write it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BUSH: And I wouldn't have been able to play it because I would have been completely lost.

Ms. ZIEGLER: We're not scientists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You explore the personalities of the different characters. And I don't know how you did this, but I was sitting there watching the Watson actor, who played Jim Watson. And I've interviewed him, I've known him, many, many times. And as they say: You got him spot on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How he's not here to talk, the director's not here. How did he prepare? Do you have any idea how he was able to did Jim Watson cooperate with you during the play?

Ms. BUSH: Well, he came to see it a couple nights ago, which was pretty exciting. But I can partially speak for what Haskell King(ph) did. He does a great job. He read a lot. I would say he came in the most, I don't know, well-read of any of us, and the dialects coach actually said: You've got his voice down.

FLATOW: But it's his mannerisms he's got down and the brusqueness and how brash he is and the flippantness that he really does exhibit.

Ms. BUSH: It was interesting to see the 80-something Watson compared to the younger Haskell, and you can definitely see how he might go into...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: When he was here, the last time he was on our show, back on the 50th anniversary a few years ago, I asked him. I asked him actually even off the air we'd interviewed Jim Watson - and I said: Tell us about, tell me more about Rosalind Franklin. And he said: She actually hindered our work. We would have gotten it faster without her.

Ms. ZIEGLER: That's interesting.

FLATOW: And it is an interesting comment because I don't know if there's any evidence to support that.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I've never heard that before.

Ms. BUSH: Me neither.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I mean, I had thought that they were quite grateful that they got the sort of key piece of evidence from Rosalind Franklin that they did.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Another interesting point that you make with her character is that even if she was left out, even if they had stolen, quote-unquote, the photograph, she didn't seem to care, would not have cared very much.

Ms. ZIEGLER: It's hard to know.

Ms. BUSH: It is - yeah.

Ms. ZIEGLER: It's...

Ms. BUSH: Go ahead.

Ms. ZIEGLER: She's I mean, it seems to me that she was most interested in the work getting done and in the sort of joy of doing it. Who knows. If she had been alive when the Nobel was given out, I would find it hard to believe that she wouldn't have been a little ticked off not to have been included, especially since Wilkins was included.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet from Lianne Diu(ph), coming in, saying: I imagine it was hard to make it in science as a woman in the '50s if you were warm and fuzzy.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I think that's right.

Ms. BUSH: Right.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I think that's right. And that's what's so fascinating about her, is the sort of - the Catch-22 that she was I think trapped in, that to get as far as she did she had to be really, really tough. But that kind of toughness and that kind of personality maybe stopped her from being able to collaborate in this very important moment in time.

FLATOW: Bob from Florida, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BOB (Caller): Hi. I have a question and then a comment, if you have time. The question is basically: Has the author of the play been affected, or had she had any contact with the play "Copenhagen," which is also about two scientists in conflict?

FLATOW: Okay, well, she's here. Anna?

Ms. ZIEGLER: I love "Copenhagen."

BOB: So did we. We saw it twice.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah, it's an amazing...

BOB: Once in London, once in New York, and they were like watching Masterpiece Theater in London and a good American drama here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah, that's true. I got to see it in London too, and I felt really lucky to have been able to do that. And it's the only time I've ever tried to direct a play, was in college, and I tried to direct "Copenhagen." And it was such a failure that we had to call in someone who was an actual director, and I became the assistant director. But I loved that play so much.

FLATOW: Science in the theater and science in the media is hot now.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Very hot.

FLATOW: Very hot. You know, you have "The Big Bang Theory" on TV with all those physicists...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Right.

FLATOW: ...being a highly rated show. We have plays like yours, other plays. You have all kinds of stuff.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah. Absolutely.

FLATOW: People...

Ms. ZIEGLER: I know I'm excited to be mentioned in the same sentence as "The Big Bang Theory"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ZIEGLER: ...which I think is a pretty funny show.

FLATOW: Yeah. After its run here, any plans going someplace else with it?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah. The play has a production in Washington, D.C. in March and April. So it will be going up there at Theater J for a couple of months this winter.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Anna Ziegler, who's the playwright of "Photograph 51," and she's telling us about how she wrote the play and her motivation behind it. Also, if you'd like to see it, it's going to be running through - the 21st?

Ms. ZIEGLER: That's right.

FLATOW: The 21st. Also with us is actress Kristen Bush, who plays Rosalind Franklin at The Ensemble Studio Theatre here in New York. It's underwritten by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which in full disclosure, also underwrites SCIENCE FRIDAY. So I thought I have to mention that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get a phone call or two in here - from Westin(ph) in Wilmington. Hi, Westin.

WESTIN (Caller): Hey. How are you doing today?

FLATOW: Hey, there.

WESTIN: Thank you for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

WESTIN: Yeah. My question is more about the actual controversy over the photograph and how they were working together, or how they might have not gained her photograph by legitimate means. I'd like to just know a little bit more about the facts of the controversy, please. And I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for calling. Anna? Kristen? Who wants to tackle that?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Well, I think, again, it's - unfortunately, it's really kind of a gray, hazy area. When Ray Gosling was interviewed in one of the documentaries that I watched - he was Franklin's assistant -originally Wilkins' assistant, but then moved over to Franklin's assistant. He said that he really couldn't remember that it might have been Wilkins that showed Watson the photograph, or it might have been Gosling himself who did it. So someone showed it to him. On the train ride home, Watson sketched it out, and that was kind of the key piece. But it was all unbeknownst to Rosalind. She had no idea that it was shown.

Ms. BUSH: Yeah, I know. Her brother was very clear about that. The other night, he said she never knew in her lifetime that they saw the photograph, or rather that they used...

FLATOW: Is that right?

Ms. BUSH: ...it - that they used it...

FLATOW: That they used it.

Ms. BUSH: ...and never suspected it.

FLATOW: How would she - if she had become famous, how do you think she would have handled the fame? Would she like to have been an icon? Or...

Ms. BUSH: This is something I feel really strong about. I don't know if you do, Anna. But I think that she's - if she was around right now, I think she'd probably be pretty upset about it. I don't think she would have liked the attention drawn - I mean, I think on the one hand, she'd probably would have been pleased that her work was getting known. But the fact that we're sitting around talking about her right now I think would make her really uncomfortable.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah. I mean, I agree. I doubt she wanted to be known as a feminist icon...

Ms. BUSH: Yeah.

Ms. ZIEGLER: ...and certainly not as a victim. I don't think she was someone who ever would have wanted to be thought of in that way. And I hope the play doesn't make her out to be that.

Ms. BUSH: Some sort of martyr.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Exactly. Yeah.

FLATOW: We're talking about the play "Photograph 51" that's at The Ensemble Studio Theatre here in New York on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Anna Ziegler and actress Kristen Bush. You know, there are interesting quotes from "The Double Helix," Jim Watson's book, and he said - and he did not have some very nice things to say about her in the book, did he?

Ms. ZIEGLER: No, he didn't.

Ms. BUSH: No.

FLATOW: He said: Clearly, Rosy had to go or be put in her place. She had to go or be put in her place. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's laboratory.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah. I mean, this - it's hard to believe that there are people who will argue that there was no sexism in the early 1950s in scientific labs, especially when you hear quotes like that. I think even if you were not a feminist, if you were working hard and trying to be, you know, and you were being ambitious, you might be seen as such.

FLATOW: And you brought up a bit of anti-Semitism into the play.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I did. Yeah. I mean, what I've heard is there was a lot of casual anti-Semitism back then.

FLATOW: Just off-the-cuff remarks...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...about things...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...in that laboratory.

Ms. ZIEGLER: I don't know about that laboratory, in particular, but I think, certainly, in England at that time, being a Jewish woman and a Jewish woman scientist would have secured your outsider status pretty firmly.

Ms. BUSH: Especially at King's as well, which was - it was, I think, an Anglican...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah.

Ms. BUSH: ...and dominated by a lot of men.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Because her story has been told so many times, are there things that you wanted to avoid retelling or getting around the mythology that have been told before?

Ms. ZIEGLER: Yeah. I mean, I think, like I said, I don't - what I found really interesting about her character were the ways in which she thwarted herself, and I - and so I didn't want to make it seemed like she was just the victim of the time period...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. ZIEGLER: ...of the sexism and the - any kind of - any - the biases that were around then and - I guess, to a certain extent - still remain. But I really think she was someone who was, at times, her own worst enemy. And that seemed really interesting to me.

Ms. BUSH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And there's also the - I think one of the themes to the play is theory versus experimentation.

Ms. ZIEGLER: Right.

FLATOW: And one of her weaknesses that you do point out when possible is that she refused to collaborate with people.

Ms. BUSH: That's right. She liked to work alone, and I think that what Anna does really beautifully and what Linsay Firman, our director, has done so well with the staging of it is, at times, you see how well, literally, on one side of the stage Watson and Crick are working, and then, on the other side of the stage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BUSH: ...it seems like there's two people not talking to each other. So that contributes a lot to what happened...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. BUSH: ...and what didn't happen.

FLATOW: I don't know if this is intentional or not, but as I'm watching it, and in between scenes where she shows up, there's some musical chimes that come out. And every once in a while, a chime - before she walked on stage, it was like round five.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It was the bell coming for the next bout between her and the other scientists (unintelligible).

Ms. ZIEGLER: I hadn't thought of it that way. That's a really good (unintelligible), looking at it.

Ms. BUSH: Yeah, even (unintelligible). I think it's great.

FLATOW: You know, but it was just timed perfect, ding. Then she'd walk on, and we've just seen the first round. We're now going to go to the next bout between her and...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Right, right, right.

FLATOW: ...her compatriots. So...

Ms. ZIEGLER: And that very well may have been in the sound designer's mind, actually.

Ms. BUSH: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. But it's a very enjoyable. I highly recommended that people get to see it. They could - they get to see it here in through November 21st at The Ensemble Studio Theater, and then it's coming to D.C.

Ms. ZIEGLER: That's right. That's right.

FLATOW: Check your local listings, as they say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I want to thank you both.

Ms. BUSH: Thank you for having us.

FLATOW: Thank you...

Ms. ZIEGLER: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: ...for taking the time to come with us. Anna Ziegler is the playwright of "Photograph 51" and winner of the 2010 Douglas T. Ward Playwriting Prize. That's at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

Actress Kristen Bush plays the part of Rosalind Franklin in the play. See if you can catch it here in New York or, hopefully, it will get passed Washington...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...and around...

Ms. ZIEGLER: I hope so.

FLATOW: ...around the other parts of the country for you to see it.

Stay with us. We're going to take a short break and talk about crowds. How do they estimate? They get it wrong so many times, the size of crowds at different rallies. We'll come up with the science of that after this break. So stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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