October 2015: A Review of Photograph 51 by the Lantern Theater Company, Philadelphia PA


By Ashley Frankenfield, Elise Brutschea, Lakshmi Narayanam, Kaleigh Williams and Jamilyn Mooteb
McNulty Program, Class of 2019

Photograph 51 is a play written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Kathryn MacMillan. The play follows Rosalind Franklin, a hardworking female scientist, who is overshadowed by the men of her time as she tries to determine one of life’s greatest mysteries: DNA.

Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins took a photograph of a DNA sample taken from a human calf tissue which showed an ‘x’ image to the naked eye. To Franklin and her partner, Wilkins, and their colleagues, Drs. Watson and Crick, this was a breakthrough. The photograph, named Photograph 51, confirmed the scientists’ theories that the DNA was a double helix.

The double helix shape or corkscrew shape helped answer some of the questions that scientists of the time had. How does the ‘gene’ get copied and passed with few mistakes? What would be the ideal shape for the gene to copy? What is the makeup of the DNA? The genes that make up a person’s characteristics had to be copied easily and exactly with few problems. They also had to be arranged in a certain way. The corkscrew shape shows a winding ladder with the genes on one side of the ladder connecting to the genes on the other side. When they are to be copied, they simply unzip and split into two strands.

With this new information on how DNA is shaped, biologists and other scientists have a better understanding of how life forms and evolves. This finding helped people understand why people have certain genes and why certain genes die out. Understanding the structure of DNA helps biologists and chemists find ways to develop better medications and it furthers their understanding of life’s smallest structures.

In plays it is the actors who either make or break a story. Through the use of emotion, different elements of a person’s life are exposed and a play becomes more engaging. During Photograph 51, the cast expertly put emotions into their dialogue. They were able to make the audience laugh and be serious at the same time. After seeing this play, we can say that without this cast, the play would not have had as powerful of an impact. Genevieve Perrier, who played Rosalind Franklin, perfectly captured what it was like to be a woman in science at this time. Women have in the past and continue to be viewed as incapable of solving problems. Perrier was able to show how Franklin felt being constantly questioned about her work. Also, Perrier was able to demonstrate Franklin’s wit when talking to other characters. In a laboratory scene, Perrier was able to put on a hard front and focused only on the work Franklin would have been doing; however, while on a date she was able to show how Franklin wasn’t just a cold-hearted woman. Without Genevieve Perrier, Franklin’s life would not have been communicated so well to the audience.

When people hear about the story of Rosalind Franklin, they do not fully comprehend her circumstances, and the play was able to portray all of it.  It showed how Rosalind was wrongfully cheated of getting credit for discovering the structure of DNA. Since her reaction to being cheated is unknown, the play fictionalized Rosalind’s reaction choosing to make her not mad at Watson and Crick for stealing her picture but disappointed in herself for not seeing it first.  In addition, it was very interesting to learn about the love triangle between Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, and Raymond Gosling, which is never metioned in Biology textbooks.  The play Photograph 51 added context and emotion to the story.

Rosalind was known to be indifferent and cold, but this was simply a defense mechanism against the men who believed that her gender made her inferior.  Her passion for science and discovery is emotionally compelling.  Rosalind Franklin should be remembered as a courageous and independent woman who had to be brave and stubborn to get as far as she did in her scientific career.  Photograph 51 was a great play to watch to learn about the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA; it was historically accurate, but also had humor, emotion, and character.