Another Twist in the Double Helix: The Story of Rosalind Franklin

  Ellen S. Jaffe

Published in Brought to Light: More Stories of Forgotten Women, ed. Bernadette Rule, Seraphim Editions, 2015.

             The scent of chestnut blossoms coming into flower wafted into Rosalind’s room as she lay in her hospital bed at the Royal Marsden.  She could almost see her dear flat on Drayton Gardens around the corner, and wished she could be there, snug in her own bed if she wasn’t well enough to work in her lab.  It had been a cold March but April was warming, and the morning sun brightened the white room and cast rainbows on the walls.  Through the open window, she could hear the sounds of birds. 

            Rosalind looked at the photograph by her bed:  herself, her friend Don Caspar, and their mutual friend Richard in the Alps last summer – was it only last July?  She longed to be back there – picnicking in a flowered meadow, looking at the snowy peaks of the Matterhorn.  She thought of all the mountains she loved to climb — the Alps, the glaciers in Norway, the Rockies.

            She and Don had gone climbing in the Rockies, near his home in Colorado, deepening the friendship that had begun when he started working in her lab in London.  They had met at the wrong time; the summer of the Rockies, just two years ago, 1956, was the summer that cancer began to make its presence known, an insidious enemy.  More vicious to her personally than the war, which had ended only eleven years ago and killed so many.

            Notes for an unfinished paper on the polio virus, the project she was working on now, lay on the table beside her bed.  She had one more thought, an idea hanging by a thread, but it was such an effort to pick up her pen.

            Yet she had to do it. At least she could add a few words, to make the concept clearer.

            Ironic, she thought, as she lay back down on her pillow, that the cells she had studied all her life were now running amok, breaking their orderly patterns, using their secret codes to take over her life.  Her ovaries, with eggs that could have grown into an embryo, a fetus, a newborn infant with its own miraculous and specific genetic information, were now filled with cancer cells growing wild, destroying not creating.

            Rosalind closed her eyes, letting the sun’s rays warm her face. The same sun would be shining in the windows of her flat, illuminating her new orange cushions. She had signed a three-year lease last spring, an affirmation she would get better, whether through medicine or her own will to live. There was so much to look forward to, even now: the Indiana conference on viruses in the summer, perhaps a side-trip to the Rockies.  And her team had just been given funding to move, together, to a new lab at Cambridge – she belonged there, with them, with her good friend and colleague Aaron Klug and all the others. 

Just before coming back to the hospital – a week ago? longer? – she’d gone to her parents’ house to celebrate her father’s sixty-fourth birthday,  She’d tried to be happy, but shuddered each time her mother looked at her with those tearful eyes. Her parents always wanted her to stay with them while she was recovering from surgery, but she’d preferred sleeping at her brother Roland’s house, playing with his children, having space to herself.   But that night she’d stayed at her parents, enjoying their company, their talk around the kitchen table – and the next morning her father had to bring her back here to the hospital. 

            She remembered the refugees from Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary who had gathered in her parents’ kitchen before the war, the ones who could see what was coming, and had the courage – and the luck – to escape.   The shadows in their eyes when they thought about the people who stayed behind.  She remembered one young writer with shaking hands, who told her father how fortunate he was that the Franklin family had come to England from Europe when they did, almost two hundred years ago.  “And now fate has brought us together.”

            Then there were the few who came after the war, thin, terrified, with blue numbers like veins on their arms. A malicious code.  Both as a scientist and a human being, she wondered how people could do this – distort reality so much that they killed people who seemed “different” – when the underlying genetic material of all homo-sapiens was so much the same, just arranged in slightly varying patterns. What was the pattern that created Nazis?

            At Cambridge, and then later at Kings’ in London, she wasn’t killed for being Jewish or for being a woman – but her career was perhaps threatened by both. Being a woman was worse in that atmosphere – much worse.   They still had separate “common rooms” for men and women at Kings’, the women’s much shabbier than the men’s.  And only a year or so ago, she’d been called “My dear,” when applying for a grant. 

            She thought of Maurice Wilkins, the assistant director, who had always undermined her work. She’d felt disparaged, alone – and then treated as too emotional when she tried to fight back.  You couldn’t have an honest discussion or argument with him – and that’s what science was all about.  She liked men with whom she could debate fiercely and still be friends. She knew what he’d called her, “the dark lady of DNA.”   And she knew Watson and others called her “Rosy” behind her back.  Rosy indeed!  Don had called her “Ros” – but that was different. Interesting that the closest male friends she’d had were Jewish – even though they often didn’t know that when they first met. 

            She had worked hard on the x-ray photographs of crystallized DNA, both the A and B forms, trying to find the key, trying to do her best in a lab where she never felt at home.  Then Francis Crick and James Watson, working at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge, had taken the crucial next steps, intuiting the structure of the double helix and the matching base pairs.  It was almost as if they had seen her photographs – especially Number 5, of B-DNA – and made the model she was moving towards, she and her student Gosling.  But how could that have happened?  She had once thought someone was reading her notebooks.  And the photographs…could Wilkins have shown them to Watson?  She was the one who had first seen that the sugar-phosphate molecules had on the outside, like the rails of a spiral staircase.

            Such competition back then, when they were all working toward the same goal, searching for something closer to truth. 

            That was several years ago, but the memory still hurt. She gave way to a spasm of coughing, of pain,

            Well, she had moved on, found a real home in Bernal’s lab at Birkbeck College, also in London but a much more welcoming atmosphere.  There she had done work she loved, with colleagues she valued: the tobacco-mosaic virus, now polio…

            She knew she had accomplished a great deal, even if she could have done much more.  She loved the world of cells, molecules, the almost unimaginably small “Angstrom” units of crystals.   Still, she worried about the wider world – people who did not have enough to eat, people who believed that the possibility of victory was reason enough to go to war.  And then the world itself was so beautiful. She remembered all the places she had travelled, alone and with friends.  She’d become friends with Francis and Odile Crick, travelled with them, stayed in their home.

            Her greatest sadness now was that she would never go to her laboratory again, never study her beautiful photographs, never think more deeply about their crystalline puzzles, their mysteries, never make more discoveries about their codes.  DNA was something like the Enigma codes Alan Turing worked on during the last war.   His death four years ago had shaken her.

           Alan’s codes were external, while the DNA, RNA, and viruses she was working on were inside the body, the secret language that coded and expressed who each of us would become.  Who knew where this research could go? If only she had another thirty or forty years to work – even twenty, even ten.  “If I only had one more year, that would be sufficient,” she thought, the words of Dayenu, the old Passover song, haunting her.  If God had only done this miracle but not that – “if He had split the sea for us, but not led us through it on dry land, or if He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, but not fed us manna – it would have been sufficient.”   One more year.

            But life followed its own chaotic pattern.  If – by a miracle – she could live to the year 2000, she would be eighty, still able to work if she was healthy.   What amazing things could she accomplish?

            What would the world be like in 2000, she wondered? Maybe, using her own research and that of her colleagues, they could find the cure for cancer, find ways to stop rogue information from taking over the cell’s controls.  Maybe the world would even be at peace, no more camps and ovens, no more atom bombs, no more prejudices. People like Alan would not have to suffer for being who they were born to be.

            She didn’t think that she had become ill directly through her work, the way radium had affected Madame Curie.  Rosalind had been fourteen when Marie Curie died, old enough and already interested enough in science to mourn her loss.  But now she wondered…they hadn’t been too careful with some of the radiation in the Paris laboratory.  Or maybe she was born with the gene material for ovarian cancer already lurking in her body.  She had heard of a few distant relatives, great-aunts and older cousins, who’d had this cancer, but no one close to her.

            Marie Curie had been the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize – not only once, but twice, first in chemistry, then in physics.  No English woman had yet won, though she thought Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgson, with her expertise in crystallography, certainly had a good chance.  When she’d worked in Paris, she found that in France, women scientists and intellectuals were much more respected than in England, treated as equals.  Maybe that was one reason she had loved her four years there – in addition to Paris itself and the European attitude toward life.  She had wanted to stay there, torn between that life and being closer to her family in England.

            At least this was the twentieth century, not the nineteenth and earlier, when things were even harder for women. She thought of Emilie du Chatelaine, Voltaire’s mistress, a physicist and mathematician in her own right.  Emilie had never gone to university but through her own studies, and the help of Voltaire and others, she taught herself math, physics, and other sciences, enough to translate and critique Leibnitz and Newton.  She struggled to finish her translation of Leibnitz, working until just before going into labour with her third child, an unexpected event at forty-three.  Emilie had written that “a woman of forty cannot survive this,” and died of infection soon after the child was born, like so many women of that time.  Whatever happened to that baby? Rosalind wondered.  Somewhere she had read it was a daughter.

            Thinking about infants and childbirth made her pause.  Did she regret not having children herself?  Was this “unnatural” for a woman, as people whispered behind her back? And now her starved, rejected ovaries were rebelling, overflowing with cancer instead of fertilized eggs?

            Yes, she had wanted to focus on her work, not raise a family – and she didn’t have that “call” to motherhood that most women, including her mother, her brother’s wives, and her friends seemed to have. She loved their children, enjoyed getting down on the floor and playing with them, taking them for walks, showing them leaves and caterpillars.  Wasn’t that enough?

            Enough thinking! She flung the blankets back impatiently, but her arm jerked, knocking over the glass of water on the table.  Glass broke and water puddled on the floor.  She scrunched back her tears.   If she’d had children and then got cancer, they would be left motherless, like Emilie du Chatelaine’s daughter.  What purpose would that serve?

            As for the Nobel, she worked in science for the love of it – but it would have been wonderful to have her work recognized that way.  She knew they did not award the Nobel posthumously.

            On her bedside table, beside the sparkling photograph of the Alps, was a notice about a fellowship in Venezuela.  She had been determined to get well, to go there… perhaps a warmer climate, away from the familiarity and the tensions of England, would help.  She had even thought of emigrating to Israel when she’d gone there for a conference, but the political climate was too restrictive.  Maybe if she had stayed in Paris, her life would have been different. 

            There was a knock on her door, and a figure entered, carrying the scent of Paris with him.  Paris.  I must be dreaming, she thought.  Mering… here?

            Jacques Mering, her former boss from the laboratoire by the Seine, just after the war.  Four of the happiest, richest years in her life, despite the after-war scarcities.  For a moment she was back in that lab, analyzing and photographing coal – or cycling by river, buying baguettes, walking in the woods on Sunday mornings to gather morels.  For a moment…then she saw him standing by her bed in this white room.

            He touched her face gently and kissed her cheek, stirring long-submerged, unspoken feelings.  But his touch was tender, like one of her brothers. “Bonjour, mon p’tit.”

            She murmured something – French still came easily to her, but her voice was too soft now, too weak for the proper accent and rapid rhythm that she enjoyed. She did not like to see the tears in his dark eyes, usually so sharp and intense.  “Quel dommage.” Silently, he cleared up the broken glass and spilled water, then sat by her bedside, chatting about this and that, until she dozed off. She did not hear him leave.

             Rosalind woke, hot, sweating, and in pain, when the nice nurse, Felicity, entered with her medicine.  Today she did not want to be sedated.  She wanted to observe what was happening, what would be happening.  She held the blue pill under her tongue instead of swallowing it, then spit it back into her hand when the nurse turned her back to fill the water glass.  Pain and nausea almost choked her as she spit.

            Then a siren ripped through the air, as if it were right inside her.   “The bombs…. Luftwaffe…. have to get to the shelter….” she murmured. 

            “No, love, that’s just the ambulance.  Sounds it’s right here in the room with us, it does.  Gives me the shivers, too, even though the war’s been over for years.  I was in my first year of nursing when the Blitz started. Saw enough to last me a lifetime.  I’ll never get used to an ambulance siren again. Even if they do make it sound less like the air raids.” 

             Felicity’s East-End accent was comforting, like a cup of hot tea. The nurse smoothed the sheets around Rosalind’s face, patted her hair gently, and left.   Rosalind slipped the blue tablet under the pillow; it would be there if she needed it. 

            She could still feel Mering’s touch on her face.  Had he really been there to see her, just a few moments ago?  Had she been in love with him in Paris ….or with anyone?  Perhaps Don? She would have liked a relationship like the one Emilie had with Voltaire, studying and working together, building a house in the country for both scientific research and pleasure, with visitors coming and going.

            Just as Emilie wrote into the night, by candlelight, to finish her work before she knew she would die in childbirth, Rosalind reached again for the notebook and pen on the table by the bed. She, started to jot down some notes – then her writing wavered and the pencil dropped from her fingers onto the blanket.  She fell back on the pillow.

            Still, she went on thinking, visualizing new experiments, new lines of research, feeling her mind at play.  This was when she felt most herself.  She had the odd thought-flash that her ideas were her children – the only children she could and would have.  And she did not want to desert them now. Besides, they could not desert her – they rushed in, helter-skelter at first, then more orderly, like a parade, no, more like mountain climbers, using ropes and climbing equipment to scale a steep, craggy face, finding a new path, exploring uncharted territory, excited and yet careful. She was sorry they were about to be orphaned.

             Her Cambridge friend Peggy, now a medical-physicist at the Marsden, stopped by to say hello.  “Let’s open the window a little wider, so you can feel the nice spring breeze.  Bet you’re looking forward to being outside again,” she said, turning away from Rosalind to look at the trees. 

            Then she returned, offering a glass, a small mouthful.  “Here’s some ice.”   Rosalind sucked obediently.  The cold felt good on her lips and tongue. Peggy left, and through the window, Rosalind could hear the robins and smell the soft air. She shut her eyes again.  When she opened them, she saw she was not alone. Her younger sister Jennifer was there, holding her hand.  She felt a cool cloth on her forehead, her wrists, inside her elbows.

            Jennifer had brought bright yellow and pink tulips to cheer her up.  The colours warmed her but also hurt her heart. She wouldn’t go out into the gardens again where the tulips were blooming freely in the earth, in great arrays.  Unlike them, these tulips in their vase would fade quickly, droop and die.  This touch of colour made her see how white the room was.  The tulips opened like hungry mouths, baby birds demanding food, or stars in the sky.  What strange thoughts!  If she were a poet, like that American woman Sylvia she’d met at a reception at Newnham College, Cambridge, a couple of years ago, she could try to write about this feeling.  But no, her writing would go in other directions; she’d write about the patterns of the tulips, and the genetics that determined their shapes and colours.

            She was cold now, despite the sunshine, a cold that felt as though her body were turning to ice.  Water expanded when it froze, she thought randomly.  Crystals.  The spiralling shapes of the double-helix DNA, like a twisted double staircase, and the hollow structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, RNA woven like thread into the protein shell.  Elegant but simple, a world creating itself, becoming visible under powerful microscopes, developing inside her photographs.  And then there were the larger structures…. huge, amazing, ancient mountains, containing their own secrets.  Alpine flowers, like red and yellow dyes, and steep rocky cliffs.  All the things of this world, and her life, each person’s life, a minute part of the whole pattern. 

            The photograph beside her bed beckoned. She felt again the thrill of climbing, higher and higher, then finding a place to rest, an aerie in the peaks. You could wake up at night and see the stars.

            She motioned to Jennifer to give her another blanket and then put on her sweater, the azure-blue cashmere she had bought in Paris on her last trip.  She sank into its soft warmth.


Note on Rosalind Franklin and why I wrote her story

            I first heard about Rosalind Franklin (July 25, 1920-April 16, 1958) several years ago, and became interested in her story: a woman scientist whose crucial work on developing the model of DNA was not given due recognition at the time, and a woman who died young from ovarian cancer. She was Jewish, like myself, from an extensive and well-to-do British family which encouraged education.  She was a crystallographer, an experimental scientist who used x-ray photography of crystals to explore and make discoveries – her work before DNA dealt with coal and graphite and her work after DNA was on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and on polio. She was considered a careful, excellent scientist; her work has many contemporary applications.  It is known that one or more of her x-ray photographs of the DNA molecule (number 51 in particular) was shown to James Watson, without her knowledge or permission, by her colleague Maurice Wilkins, with whom she had a difficult professional relationship. This led to Francis Crick and Watson making the intuitive leap to the double-helix structure of DNA, with an external sugar-phosphate backbone and inner matched base pairs (adenine-thymine, guanine-cytosin), like the railings and steps of a spiral staircase.  Rosalind had already theorized that the sugar-phosphate needed to be on the outside of the molecule, not the inside, as other scientists believed.  Apparently she did not know the details about Wilkins showing the photograph to Watson (who then drew it from memory while taking the train back from London to Cambridge), but she may have had suspicions.  At the time, she was working with Wilkins at Kings’ College in London; Crick and Watson were at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. She was, however, already preparing to move to the Birkbeck lab, also in London, where she found a more supportive work environment and was able to devote herself to new scientific research projects. Diagnosed with cancer in September 1956, she continued to work and travel until her final days.   

            She always loved travelling, especially mountain climbing. She never married or had a long-term romantic relationship, or had children; there are suggestions that she was in love with at least two men but circumstances – and/or her own personality – intervened. She did have ongoing friendships with several scientists, men and women. All her life she remained close to her parents and siblings – three brothers and one sister – and enjoyed time with her nieces and nephews and her friends’ children.  She loved to cook.  A complex woman who died too soon.  

            She has never been completely forgotten. James Watson wrote disparagingly of her in his book The Double Helix, though he acknowledged the importance of her photograph and added an epilogue apologizing for his earlier “wrong” perceptions and praising her “superb” scientific work and her “courage and integrity.”  There are three excellent biographies, including one by her younger sister, Jennifer, written when Jennifer was 84. In addition, several scientific buildings and institutions in Great Britain have been named for her.  She could not have been considered for a Nobel Prize, as these are not awarded posthumously.

            I have set the story during one of the last days of Rosalind’s life, in the hospital.  Most  details are drawn from fact (including the visits of Mering and Peggy), with a few exceptions: the nurse “Felicity” is my invention; I do not know if Rosalind had a connection with Alan Turing but I am sure she knew about his work and life; she probably knew about Emilie du Chatelaine; there  is no record that she  met Sylvia Plath, but Plath and Ted Hughes were at Cambridge for several months in 1956, and as Rosalind did her first degree at Newnham College, Cambridge, a meeting was not impossible.   I love Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips,” (The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me”), published in 1965, so I added a gift of spring tulips and made this imaginative link.  Plath, of course, also died young, by suicide.


Bodanis, David.  E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.  Berkeley: Berkeley Trade, 2001.  (re. Emilie du Chatelaine).

Glynn, Jennifer.  My Sister Rosalind Franklin.  Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Maddox, Brenda.  Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2002. This is an extremely thorough and well-written book, combining personal and scientific information.

Plath, Sylvia. “Tulips,” Ariel.  London: Faber and Faber, 1965. 

Sayre, Anne.  Rosalind Franklin & DNA.  New York: Norton, 1975.  I did not use this directly, but Sayre is often mentioned in Maddox’s book, and is worth reading.

Watson, James D. The Double Helix.  London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968.