Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

The ghost of Photo 51


When I left the theater after seeing the play, Photograph 51, there was a haunting image in my mind. I had just seen a woman of science ignored and ostracized and jilted. The lab equipment on the stage looked quaint and distant, but the relationships seemed much more familiar.

My fellow audience members that night were mostly men and women of modern science. At least one very young woman left the theater angry at how Rosalind Franklin was called “Rosie” by her coworkers.

Riyanka Ganguly is a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue and she knew there was discrimination against women. “I wasn’t surprised,” she explained in an interview. “But seeing it on stage and hearing them call her “Rosie” made me angry.” Ganguly is studying advanced placement biology and imagines herself as a future professional in life sciences.

Ganguly is participating in a Seattle organization called Young Women in Bio, and along with Women in Bio, they helped sponsor a panel discussion of the glass ceiling for women at the theater. Most people may already know that Rosalind Franklin was a scientist at Kings College in London who helped take a famous x-ray photograph of DNA. Her more-famous colleagues, James Watson and Francis Crick, won the Nobel prize for their publication about the structure of the  DNA molecule.

There is a rich combination of opinions and resources at the Public Broadcasting website here. Not everyone agrees about the nature of Franklin’s contribution. But the play gives us a lot to chew on. She is depicted as prickly and aloof and does not seem to enjoy or participate much in discussions with other scientists.

Two other Seattle scientists, Therese Seldon and Hannah Thomas, shared their impressions about the play. Therese and Hannah are co-chairs of the YWIB. Therese is also director of product development for Immunexpress, and holds a doctorate in biochemistry. She pointed out that one element of Franklin’s career is not related to gender at all. When she arrives at her new post at Kings College, expecting to be in charge of one task, they immediately tell her “no, you will actually be doing something else.”

Seldon laughed and said that experience was modern and accurate. Responsibilities shift rapidly in the research environment. “The way politics and bureaucracy enter into her science life is fairly common now,” Seldon said.

Thomas is pursuing a master’s degree in health sciences and is a freelance consultant on research administration.

She pointed out that while overt discrimination may be rare, there are more subtle ways that women still may feel the cards are stacked against them.  She also noticed that Franklin’s own reluctance to mingle and discuss with her colleagues may have kept her from insights that are the product of discussion itself.

Women may hold themselves back by feeling more reluctant to show any weakness or ask for help. Several media reports about Seattle’s atmosphere for women are contradictory. News in the past few weeks has said Seattle is one of the best places to be a female entrepreneur, while a different article said women in Seattle have a greater disparity in income with men than in other cities. In Seattle, women earn 73 cents for every dollar that a man earns.

For me, the ghost of Photograph 51 is that women may limit themselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In the play about Franklin we see some of that consent.

One woman told me of a colleague who did not feel any discrimination in Seattle science, but deliberately did not wear fingernail polish at work for fear of seeming feminine. That’s consenting to something.

Just one postscript to this exploration, the family of Frances Crick includes his son, Michael who lives in the Seattle area. Michael chose the 60th anniversary of the publication of the article about DNA to sell a letter his father wrote to him about the discovery. According to this news story,  a buyer paid more than $6 million for the letter. Some of the proceeds went to a museum in California.

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