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Photograph 51 and the Pursuit of Balance

Rosalind Franklin was instrumental to the discovery of DNA, but as the film photograph 51 demonstrates, hers was a life out of balance. 

Rosalind Franklin has long been considered the woman left out of Crick, Watson, and Wilkins’ 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Crick admitted in a letter to using her data without her permission, most notably Franklin’s x-ray image “photograph 51,” which strikingly revealed the double helix. Franklin will receive cinematic acknowledgement for her contribution in a film starring Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz as the intrepid, feisty scientist who, in pursuit of knowledge, lived a life of isolation.

“I think she is a cautionary tale,” says Anna Ziegler, the playwright who wrote Photograph 51 for a small theater in Maryland, and later worked with Weisz to adapt it for screen. (Weisz is officially attached to the script; the project is still in development).

“[Franklin’s life] felt like a life that was missing basic simple things that make us happy,” says Ziegler. “She never had a real relationship. She never had children.” It has also been debated whether Franklin’s anti-social tendencies or gender discrimination, or a combination of both, led to her being cut out from receiving credit for her mighty contribution.

“I wrote it because her character is fascinating, not because she deserves glory she never received,” explains Ziegler. “In fact, it’s almost the opposite. It’s more a ‘why didn’t she get there first?’ story rather than a ‘she did get there first’ story.”

In 1958, four years before the prize went to her closest competitors, Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37, leaving her male peers, namely the brilliant and dynamic duo Crick and Watson, to bask in the accolades. Legend has it, after the famous discovery assisted by “photograph 51,” Crick walked into a Cambridge pub and announced, “We have found the secret of life.”

Ziegler’s dramatic retelling of Franklin’s role in unlocking this secret paints a chummy male culture full of brilliance, ambition, and witty one-liners. A lone minority, Franklin—double-damned for being a woman and Jewish—was satisfied keeping to herself to obsess over her work.

Would Franklin have received her due praise if only she had lightened up? That’s a question raised by Photograph 51. “It’s all about balance,” says Ziegler. “That’s what Photograph 51 is about. How do we find balance especially when we have ambition?”

Warm and bubbly, Ziegler mirrors Franklin only in her sheer determination to capture Franklin’s essence and tell her story. After growing up an aspiring poet in the artistic haven of Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, Ziegler turned to playwriting in college when her mother pointed out that her poems were full of dialogue. “It’s amazing,” she says, “how the things you do early on determine the course of your life.” Studying at Yale under Pulitzer heavyweights–the playwrights Donald Margulies and Arthur Kopit, Ziegler decided to earn a masters in playwriting from New York University. After graduate school, she taught English at St. Ann’s.

In 2007, the opportunity that led to Photograph 51 started out as a $500 commission that her agent tried to talk her out of for paying too little. But she persisted. “I did not expect that script to go anywhere beyond that first production,” she says.

Not only did Ziegler go on to learn screenwriting with the help of one of the greatest actresses of our time, she’s currently developing two other science-driven dramas, both backed by grants from the Sloan Foundation. One is a play based on David Reimer, the Canadian man who was raised as a female after losing his penis in a freak accident during his circumcision. The project explores the nature vs nurture debate and gender identity. The second play digs into the life of Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century archeologist obsessed with uncovering the sites of Homer’s epics in order to prove that the ancient Greek poet was a historian.

Her advice for aspiring writers is advice that perhaps Franklin should have followed: Outside of your craft, find other things in life to enjoy. With around 3 to 5 years between the first typed words and opening night, Ziegler appreciates having a job, in education, that gets her out of the house.  “I don’t want to sit at home all day and write,” she says. Averaging completing one new play a year by writing only when the deadline or muses demand it, Ziegler stays productive in her pursuit of balance.

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