Just a week ago, Valerie Trierweiler, the current partner of Francois Hollande, took up her pen to write about a woman. This was Rosalind Franklin, the person responsible for showing for the first time, through her expert photographs, the double-helix structure of DNA. The translation of Brenda Maddox's biography into French after its first publication in 2002 was the prompt to Trierweiler's article in Paris Match this month.
Rosalind Franklin's story is as remarkable as it is sad. After schooling at St. Paul's, a degree and Fellowship at Cambridge, three happy years in Paris developing x-ray crystallography techniques, she used these techniques at King's College London in 1950-53 to uncover the structure of DNA. A colleague at King's College from New Zealand, Maurice Wilkins, smarting from the fact that the head of the laboratory had given her this task rather than him, took her photographs showing the double helix structure of DNA to the rival team at Cambridge. There, Watson (American) and Crick (New Zealander) were working independently on the structure of DNA, and Watson realized that these photographs were the scientific evidence they needed to lead them to see that the DNA molecule was a double-stranded helix. Franklin and the duo at Cambridge published their findings on DNA in Nature in the same issue in 1953 but she was forced to move away from King's College and work on DNA since her Fellowship Funding came to an end. She died five years later of ovarian cancer (Maddox suggests the chemicals she used may have played a role) but Watkins, Crick and Wilkins went on to collect the Nobel prize in 1962 for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. A Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously but many have suggested that mention should have been made of her in the award.
This story and its emergence in Paris Match give pause for thought. The central feature of Franklin's life is for many the way that her photograph of the B-form of DNA (now famous as photograph No. 51) passed without her knowledge to the rival team at Cambridge who then used it as a missing link in their thinking. Her photographs of DNA were subsequently described by Professor J.D. Bernal of Birkbeck College as "the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." and some might see Wilkin's passing of her photograph to the rival team, without her knowledge, as an act of arch betrayal. Her previous biographer, Anne Sayre, author of the 1974 biography Rosalind Franklin and DNA, described this act and describes Wilkins' acknowledgement, in an interview, that perhaps he had done wrong. Given the centrality of this act to the subsequent work of the three men, it is interesting to consider how modern day critics view this.
In Trierweiler's review, this act of treachery is relegated to the tail end of a sentence in a five paragraph piece which devoted most of two paragraphs to Franklin's Jewish background and one to the tardiness of translating Maddox into French. When it comes to the defining act of betrayal, this is left to the short final paragraph describing her research. After establishing Franklin's priority to measure the vectors in the molecule, Trierweiler writes (my translation) that:
"There is nothing left to recount except the breathless race between her and the three other researchers, Watson, Crick and Wilkins who took her notes."
There is no acknowledgement here of the fact that Franklin's work was taken without her consent and so Trierweiler does not ponder the central moral issues involved. She sees this as a race, presumably takes the view that all's fair in love and war. The anniversary of Franklin's birth is July 25 and this will be an opportunity to ponder the important moral questions neglected by these commentators. Can it be right to take someone's data without permission and profit from that scientifically and professionally? And what, moreover, if we fail to ponder these questions and allow dishonesty to prevail?