A Reaction to "DNA: The Secret of Life" Honoring Rosalind Franklin

At the beginning of this semester in my biology class, we watched the PBS documentary "DNA: The Secret of Life," which left me feeling more disheartened about the inexcusable behavior of the scientists that have been credited with making breakthroughs to allow the deeper study of genetics. "DNA: The Secret of Life" is a documentary about the main figures (Watson, Crick, Wilson, Franklin, and Pauling) that were involved in discovering the structure and thus the method of replication of DNA. What follows is a reaction to the documentary and the shady actions that lead to the discovery of the structure of DNA to being credited to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins before it was exposed that these three men stole Franklin's photo 51 to do so. This article is to honor Rosalind Franklin for her significant contributions to the field of molecular genetics. 

Overall, the documentary was biased towards Watson’s perspective and the perspective of the men involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The film was also biased because it was not objective in that it labeled the discovery of the structure of DNA as the greatest discovery of genetics.  It disheartened me how childish the famous and respected scientists that are credited for discovering the structure of DNA behave and conduct themselves to this day. After listening to Watson’s perspective, my perspective of the discovery of DNA changed, as I realized the extent of the rivalry between Cambridge and King’s College in the DNA race and the discrimination involved. It was shocking to see how proud Watson is for stealing credit for other scientists’ research. Before watching the documentary, I knew Rosalind was discriminated against because of her gender, that her research was stolen, that she was not credited with the discovery of the structure of DNA in her lifetime, and that she was not told that Wilkins, Watson, and Crick used a photo of hers without her knowledge. However, I did not know about how Watson and Crick also acquired knowledge from unpublished research without consent by sneaking into meetings, offices, and interrogating their competition.  

My knowledge was expanded by the approach that Watson and Crick used to making their famous discovery. Despite their shady dealings on the road to uncovering the secrets of DNA, their approach was more effective than the approaches of the other scientists because they connected the dots between research from as many sources as they could. By breaking the rules and stealing information, they were able to understand the overall picture better than the other scientists working on the same problem who had either too little information like Linus Pauling or were spending time doing repetitive tasks in their research like Wilkins and Franklin.

Wilkins and Franklin were not successful in discovering the structure of DNA before Watson and Crick because they did not work together, as they did not get along. Wilkins seems to have wanted to get the credit for discovering the structure of DNA all on his own. Once Wilkins realized that Franklin had the key, instead of working with Franklin and sharing credit for the discovery, he discriminated against her because of her gender and their personal disagreements. Wilkins secretly gave Franklin’s research to Watson and Crick, who also did not respect Franklin, and shared credit for unravelling the discovery of the structure of DNA with the men.

From the beginning Wilkins should have done a better job of working together with Franklin. According to Raymond Gosling a lab assistant in Wilkins’ lab, Franklin and Wilkin’s were both under the impression that they were in charge of the lab. Wilkins did not assert his position as the leader of the King’s College’s DNA research team and further isolated himself by having his and Franklin’s offices be at opposite ends of the hall. The biggest flaw of the documentary is that Franklin is not able to provide own her perspective, as she passed away five years after Watson and Crick’s DNA structure article came out in Nature due to cancer, which is long before the documentary was filmed. Thus, I cannot come to a conclusion about Franklin’s role in the distancing between her and Wilkins.

In face of the childish and discriminatory behavior of the male scientists, I agree with Wilkins' statement that “science ought to be an open community,” although his statement should be changed to science should be a consensually open community. I believe Franklin would have soon found the structure of DNA had she either had more time or had Wilkins been more open to working with Franklin instead of isolating himself from her. If science should really be an open community in Wilkins’ eyes, Wilkins should have put effort into joining his research attempts with those of Franklin, so they could uncover the structure of DNA together.

Rosalind was cheated. Watson broke into her office without permission, started rummaging around in her research, and was “surprised” that Franklin got angry and kicked him out. It was not right for Watson to break in, and it was also not right for Wilkins to not only steal Franklin’s findings but also share them with Watson and Crick without Franklin’s permission. Franklin was cheated the most by the fact that none of the men revealed having used her research until after her death.

Franklin did not share her research, given the environment she was working in and the sexism of the men in her lab and in her field, I would not have shared my research either if I had been in her place. The sexism that Franklin faced still strongly permeated through the language in the film, which was released in 2003. Watson at one point in the film recognizes his own wrongdoing in the film by mentioning that “right or wrong, good or bad guys, depends on the facts [and the interpretation of those facts].” Wilkins along with others expressed their sexist views of Franklin by referring to Franklin as “The Dark Lady of DNA” because she did not match the ideal image of being “on her toes, looking pretty, chipper, and not sad” like the image of the ballerina that Wilkins had on the wall of his office and because of her supposedly enigmatic character that spent most of her time alone in her lab. Wilkins could not deal with the cognitive dissonance between his sexist viewpoint of female scientists and the strong capable woman he was supposed to be working with.

From this documentary I also realized the most important characteristics of successful scientists are not only asking the questions why and how but more importantly trying to understand big picture ideas and working with others to further understand and unravel big picture ideas concerning science. Understanding big picture ideas and teamwork are key for connections to be made between different aspects that are being studied in the scientific field. Science is a team effort, where everyone’s knowledge helps build on and expand everyone else’s knowledge. This is how humans have come to understand so much about the world and the universe. Without sharing information and openly communicating ideas, the progress of science is greatly slowed, theories cannot effectively be formed, and scientists can easily digress into coming up with false conclusions.

Going towards the future, I hope that scientists and researchers will be more willing to work together and share ideas. And I hope that anyone reading this article can help make a stand when they see someone who is being discriminated against no matter the field they are working in or what background they come from. Rosalind Franklin deserves to have known what she helped accomplish in her lifetime. Although no one can go back in time, we can still help give a voice all the other Rosalinds out there today.


Images credits go to Pixabay.