Rosalind Franklin, creativity and the discovery of DNA

Science is methodical and procedural, but it also requires a sense of intuition and imagination. The scientist asks daily, for example, ‘what if?’.

Rosalind Franklin was a little-known scientist whose contribution to the discovery of the DNA double helix has been overshadowed by that of two of her colleagues, Alfred Watson and Francis Crick. Her story holds many lessons for how to live a successful creative life.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the constraints Franklin faced in her creative work as a scientist.

Franklin’s unpublished work was pioneering in its recognition of certain aspects of the structure of DNA.

Unfortunately, the significance of her findings was only hinted at by Watson and Crick in their Nature article on the double helical structure of DNA.

In the acknowledgements, Watson and Crick make a fleeting reference to “having been stimulated by a general knowledge of” Franklin’s unpublished contribution.

And that’s it.

“ Creative people need to know how to focus on what matters; on where to direct energy. ”

Among her talents, Franklin was an extraordinary x-ray crystallographer. It was a stolen copy of Franklin’s photo of DNA, called “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken” by scientist JD Bernal, that formed a significant understanding of the structure of DNA.

The photo, known as ‘Photo 51’ is haunting and evocative, as is the story that accompanies it.

And this brings me to creativity.

And also what it meant to be a creative woman — and perhaps what it still means today.

Franklin’s story highlights a bunch of societal expectations that concern not only creativity, but also women more broadly.

Let’s deal with the creativity one first.

Contributors at GIM are preoccupied about the meaning of the term ‘creativity’ and how to turn creative output into social action. Numerous traits and attributes combine to make a creative mind.

But mostly, creativity occurs through forming links between seemingly unrelated phenomena to create something novel. That “something novel” may be a book, a painting — or it may be knowledge.

In her lab Franklin was scientist and creator. She used disparate sources of knowledge to create the model of the DNA double helix. She also contributed significantly to knowledge about the molecular structure of viruses and coal. She was chemist, crystallographer — and philosopher. On the subject of the existence of God, she wrote this in a letter to her father:

[S]cience and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life… I do not accept your definition of faith i.e. belief in life after death…
Your faith rests on the future of yourself and others as individuals, mine in the future and fate of our successors. It seems to me that yours is the more selfish…[as to] the question of a creator. A creator of what?…
I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe.”

From this letter, Franklin describes an organic and fluid notion of the role of science in ‘real’ life. Science for her is not relegated to the systematic and structural, but exists chaotically in the fabric of the quotidian.

What’s also interesting about Franklin’s story is how she was described by her male colleagues. Wilkins, another scientist in one of Franklin’s labs, described her as having an “air of cool superiority.”

He was also the person who stole Franklin’s photo of the DNA and showed it to Watson.

Franklin was one of the only women in the science staff at King’s College. Francis Crick admits to having adopted a patronising attitude towards Franklin.

So, she worked in a patronising environment, in male-only lab, in a predominantly male field, in the 50s. It’s not difficult to imagine why Franklin would need a no-nonsense and forthright approach to her workplace relationships.

However, the many descriptions of her forthrightness are not celebrated descriptions.

Accounts of her border more on the pejorative than positive.

In a video interview, Francis Watson describes her as follows:

“…she didn’t know how to deal with other people…and was probably paranoid about other people stealing her data…”

I wonder Watson felt the need to comment on Franklin’s motives and personality in this way? Is it merely because she stood her ground? Is it because she didn’t play the game of subservient cutie the 1950s demanded of women (even scientist women)?

Or was it rather the case that Franklin knew where to direct her energy?

Creativity requires focus and hard work.

Creative people need to know how to focus on what matters; on where to direct energy. A woman as accomplished as Franklin knew how to do this.

Unfortunately, many people give so much mind to caring about what others think, trying to please and getting involved in workplace politics, they have little mind left for making and doing.

Rosalind Franklin prompts us to consider where to engage and where not.

After all, making the right decisions about this can mean a whole lot of difference to our creative outcomes.

Further information:

Maddox, Brenda (2003). Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. London: Harper Collins.

Glynn, Jenifer (2012). My Sister Rosalind Franklin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Interview with James Watson

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