Saturday, May 01, 2010

Photograph 51

If I had a more interesting blog, one that explored the secrets of life, I would call it "Photograph 51".
This is the photograph, the X-ray diffraction pattern that James Watson and Francis Crick used in 1953 to discern the structure of DNA. They got it from Rosalind Franklin, who created it, without her knowledge. (They were competitors. Watson and Crick were misogynists who couldn't be bothered to collect any data of their own. They made friends with Frankin's boss, Maurice Wilkins, who hated her enough to steal and share her data.) From this photo, they determined the distance between base-pairs and the periodicity of the DNA double helix, leading them to determine the structure of DNA. And thus the field of molecular biology was born.

Watson, Crick, and Wilkins later won the Nobel prize for this discovery in 1962. Franklin didn't because you have to be alive to win, and she had passed away from ovarian cancer in 1958. (I wouldn't be surprised if her extensive work with X-ray diffraction had something to do with her ovarian cancer.)

So many connotations would come with a blog called "Photograph 51" that I would never do it justice. Groundbreaking discovery, the secret of life, the perils and politics of doing science, misogyny, shady dealings, the ironies of life. I'm afraid it might be a rather cynical blog.

But it would definitely cover Henrietta Lacks, the source of HeLa cells, a widely used cervical cancer cell line. (It was used to test the polio vaccine, for example. I used it in my undergraduate studies.) Neither Lacks nor her family knew that doctors had taken a sample of her cells before she died in 1951, and neither were they compensated for it. They remain poor, and here's the irony bit: they don't have health insurance.

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