“Photograph 51”: The Unknown World of Rosalind Franklin

by Larissa Dzegar

With our Science Issue currently on newsstands, we are excited about a new play, Photograph 51, that tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, the incredible scientist who played a crucial- and widely unacknowledged- part in he discovery of DNA’s double helix. Presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in a motion to enhance our understanding of science and technology, the play is written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Linsay Firman.

I was first drawn to the play after reading this article by Eliza Strickland for Discover Magazine, which I found so fascinating I went to see the play myself this past weekend. I was deeply touched by the production, from the seamless performances by a stellar cast, to the inspiring and educational story of a woman history has unjustly left behind.

In a cast of five men and only one woman, I was easily transported into Franklin’s world in 1950’s London, where she had to insist that people call her Dr. Franklin and respect her as a scientist, often coming off as arrogant and cold. Brought to life masterfully by actress Kristen Bush, I felt as though I actually knew Rosalind Franklin by the end of the play. Ms. Bush was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email about her process in playing this role and what she’s learned. Read below, and learn more about the play, which runs through November 21st, here.

LD: Did you know about Rosalind Franklin before the play? What did you learn about her?

KB: I knew nothing of Rosalind Franklin before the play, in fact, I knew very little about the discovery of the structure of DNA. This is one of my favorite things about theatre: getting to learn about completely new things and immerse myself in them. I learned about her- her story, what I think were her passions, and her frustrations. In playing a real person, there’s a plethora of information- both pro-Rosalind and anti-Rosalind.

LD: How did you prepare for this role?

KB: I read her biography. I tried to get her accent down- a very heightened 1950’s British one. The director and I went to Columbia University and spoke with a crystallographer one morning. Watched documentaries about her, poured over photographs of her. And thought about her, lived with her for weeks before the play opened.

LD: Do you call yourself a feminist? Do you think Rosalind Franklin would have called herself one?

KB: If to be a feminist is to believe that women are of equal worth to men, then yes. If it also means that there’s an inherent frustration with the inequality that existed before our time– and that now exists– then  yes. I do not believe that we are made the same way. But I do believe we deserve to be treated equally. And as long as women get mugged on the streets and don’t get equal pay and are told that their bodies are more important than their souls, then I will continue to call myself a feminist. 
I don’t think Rosalind Franklin would have considered herself a feminist. She called herself a scientist. She wanted to do her work and was frustrated when she was thwarted. Does that mean she wasn’t a feminist? No, I think she probably was by definition; but I doubt she would’ve called herself one. If she were still alive, I think she’d be pretty mortified that she’s become an icon of sorts.

LD: As the only female actor in the play, did your experience mirror hers in any way?

KB: Not in this play. I had a fabulous female director, Linsay Firman, and an amazing female playwright, Anna Ziegler. It wasn’t a ‘boys club’ at all. It was a club where all cast mates, creatives, and crew were equals. Which isn’t to say that I’ve not felt patronized towards in past plays- I have. But, rightly so, this wasn’t one of them.

LD: What message do you think this play and her recent exposure sends to women?

KB: I think Rosalind Franklin’s story is yet another example of women being a part of the fabric of history and not being recognized– until much later (in Franklin’s case, posthumously). I am thrilled to have gotten to know about her and I feel that she was definitely one of the pioneers [in her field]- she simply did her work. That’s what she cared about. She did it in spite of being in a ‘boys club’ that didn’t value her, she did it in spite of being criticized for being single-minded (something that would’ve been a compliment to a man), and she did it in spite of her cancer- most people in her lab didn’t even know she was ill until the end. She didn’t ‘suffer the fools’ and I’m grateful she’s finally getting her due.


Special thanks to Kristen Bush and Eliza Strickland.

PHOTO COURTESY OF: The Ensemble Studio Theatre

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