Nicole Kidman in 'Photograph 51': A new play explores rivalries over DNA

Steve Connor, Science Editor, scrutinises the work's central claims

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Science, like life, is a complicated affair. So portraying the lives of six scientists over a febrile two years of discovery, in a 90-minute, one-act play, was never going to be easy. But this performance pulls it off – brilliantly.

It's rare – too rare – for a science journalist like myself to be invited into the arts pages so I am writing this piece with some trepidation. The first thing to say about the story of "photograph 51" is that this is not the first time it has been turned into a drama. A 1987 TV film called Life Story, starring Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin and Jeff Goldblum as a manic, gum-chewing James Watson, tried to capture the passions and emotions of what is widely considered to be the most important scientific discovery (in biology at least) of the 20th century – the DNA double helix.

Most people familiar with the unravelling of the 3D structure of DNA have probably associated it with just two Cambridge men: the Englishman Francis Crick and the American James Watson. The critical supporting roles of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King's College London had been, and still are to a great extent, sadly overlooked.

Photograph 51 attempts to redress the balance. Anna Ziegler's script and Michael Grandage's direction vividly capture the human side of the process of scientific discovery, with all its self-doubt, petty jealousy and competitive spirit. These emotions can be powerful drivers of discovery, yet they can also sully the ultimate, sublime thrill of being the first to witness something that no one has seen before.

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Franklin in 1955 (Getty)

But this play is really about just one person, Rosalind Franklin, played superbly by Nicole Kidman. As if to underline Franklin's central role in the discovery of the double helix, Kidman is made to "stand out", both literally and figuratively. She takes centre stage, even when other characters are talking, and the lighting and make-up make her pale skin luminous white against the dowdy backdrop of 1950s academia, portrayed so well by the bomb-blasted, Gothic set of a post-war basement lab.

Franklin is the focus because, we are led to believe, it was her work – encapsulated in photograph 51 – that led to the discovery of the double helix. The aim was indeed to make Kidman's character "stand out", unlike the forgettable actress who played Hermione in the 1951 production of The Winter's Tale, whose name Franklin and Wilkins could not recall after they had seen the play on the same night, but sadly, for them, separately.

The moment that, for me, captured the frustration of science best came when Kidman held photograph 51 – an X-ray image of the B form of the DNA crystal – against the rays of a stage spotlight. The ultimate prize was there, sharply focused on Franklin's retina, but she just couldn't visualise the helix hidden in the dark cross-patterns on the exposed film.

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Franklin's obituary for the 'late helix'

We now know that DNA is made of two intertwining molecular strands wrapped in a double helix. The structure tells us two vitally important things: how living things store the genetic information needed to make living cells, and how this information is passed on from one generation to the next.

The discovery earned Watson, Crick and Wilkins a shared Nobel Prize in 1962, four years after Franklin had died of double ovarian cancer, possibly triggered by her own X-ray equipment. And the question is often asked whether she should have shared the prize. The problem is that, under the rules, the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Neither can it be shared between more than three people, which would have led to the thorny question of who to leave out – Wilkins or Franklin?

I once suggested some years ago that, had Franklin lived, Wilkins would arguably not have shared the prize. I was rebuked at the time by his and Franklin's former colleagues at King's, as well as by a family member who showed me documentary evidence of Wilkins' seminal role in the discovery of the helix before Franklin had even joined King's in 1951.

Having sat next to Wilkins on an international flight – we were returning from the same science conference in 1988 – I can vouch for his immense modesty on this matter. It was just after Life Story had been aired, where he was portrayed in an unfavourable light, and I couldn't quite reconcile Wilkins' rather nasty, sexist screen character with the self-effacing and courteous gentleman sitting next to me.

The breakdown in relations between Wilkins and Franklin is the central dramatic theme of Photograph 51. Franklin was understandably angry with her treatment by Wilkins and tormented by the institutional sexism of the day. The play makes a point of Franklin being barred from the men-only senior common room at King's, although it makes no mention of the less opulent "combination" room available to female academics at King's – a sexist anachronism even in the 1950s.

Neither does the play make clear that photograph 51 was actually taken by Ray Gosling, a PhD student at King's who became Franklin's assistant and who died this year. There are comic moments in the play when Gosling, who later became a professor, acts as go-between when Franklin and Wilkins are no longer on speaking terms. It is standard practice in science for junior researchers, as Gosling was when he took the photograph in May 1952, to be pushed out of the limelight; but is the play right to imply that Franklin would have been robbed of the Nobel prize had she lived?

Wilkins and Gosling started using X-ray diffraction on DNA in 1950, the year before Franklin arrived in London from Paris. Working with Alec Stokes (who does not appear in the play), Wilkins produced the first diffraction image to suggest that the molecule might be a helix; it was this 1951 image that inspired Watson to pursue DNA when Wilkins later showed it at a conference. In 1951, Wilkins had also written to his friend Crick about the helical structure, including a sketch of the DNA X-ray pattern. If anyone can claim to have come up with the idea of DNA being a helix of some kind, it was Wilkins. The play fails to mention that Franklin had jokily mocked the notion in a postcard she wrote in July 1952 announcing the "death of the helix".

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James Watson in 1953 (Getty)

In another controversial moment, the play depicts Wilkins surreptitiously taking photograph 51 from Franklin's desk drawer and showing it to Watson. Anyone watching this could be forgiven for thinking that Wilkins had actually stolen Franklin's work and given it to her competitors in Cambridge. However, according to Wilkins, Franklin had given him the image – which she had had for many months without doing anything with it – in anticipation of giving up her work on DNA and leaving King's.

The nature of scientific discovery is such that had Watson and Crick not come up with their model of the DNA double helix based the experiments at King's, others would have done so, with or without photograph 51. Ultimately, the Nobel committee got it right: Watson and Crick came up with the theoretical model of the double helix based on the work at King's, instigated by Wilkins and executed by Franklin (with Gosling's help). If the prize could be shared by four people, there is no question the fourth would have been Franklin. She was the fourth most important person in the discovery. But to suggest that Wilkins is an undeserving thief is a travesty – despite it making good theatre.

'Photograph 51', Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 (0844 482 5141) to 21 November

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