Bad Chemistry

57807-1 Mary Beth Aberlin in The Scientist:

There's something irresistible about plays that deal with iconic scientific discoveries, especially when controversy surrounds the people who make these finds–just think of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. That play, by Michael Frayn, portrayed seminal discoveries about the structure of the atom made in the early 20th century. The second iconic discovery of that century–the molecular structure of DNA–was every bit as earthshaking, and is the subject of a new play, Photograph 51, written by Anna Ziegler.

The drama centers on the story of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin and her role in elucidating DNA's double-helical structure from 1951 to 1953. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for this achievement. Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, but had she lived, there is little possibility that she would have been tapped for the prize.

In Photograph 51, Franklin is portrayed as a complex person–attractive, competent, self-confident, but also driven and rather imperious. She arrives at Kings College in 1951 with the understanding that she will have sole charge of a project to determine the crystal structure of DNA, just as the molecule's role in the passage of hereditary information was becoming clearer. Ray Gosling, an affable young PhD candidate, who had formerly worked on DNA with Maurice Wilkins, is to be her assistant. Wilkins returns from vacation eager to work with Franklin, not knowing that the head of the department, J.T. Randall, has assigned his project to her. And Franklin doesn't know that Wilkins doesn't know. This terrible misunderstanding sets the stage for the bitter relationship that develops between the two, where daily life in the lab becomes a sad sort of turf battle.