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Race for the Double Helix: DNA Controversy in the 50s

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2183 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The DNA Controversy of the 1950s

The movie The Race for the Double Helix is based on the experiences that Rosalind Franklin underwent as she worked on unveiling mysteries behind the human DNA (Scott & Gilbert 89). The movie depicts the discovery of DNA and the scientific compaction involved in its development. After briefly touching on her childhood, the film swiftly moves to England where Franklin was working in the laboratory. Franklin obtained her undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in chemistry from Cambridge University. Initially, she started working in the lab in Paris where she became a scientist in the field of X-ray crystallography technique, but later she began working at a laboratory at King’s College, London. In this lab, she was charged with the responsibility of using her skills in the arena of Crystallography to organize and oversee DNA diffractions. This responsibility gave her room to interact with a man known as Maurice Wilkins since he worked on the biophysical aspects in DNA projects (Jackson). Although Watsons’ misinforms that the DNA project belonged to him, the movie later reveals that it was carried out under the umbrella of Randall’s lab. Right from the beginning of the film, there are clashes between Wilkin and Franklin (Jackson). This was despite the fact that they both worked in different departments. The frequent encounters as presented in the movie lead to the introduction of Crick who eventually contributed to the attainment of the Nobel prize after having been pursued by Wilkins for a close friendship. Simultaneously, Wilkins was also seeking a close relationship with Watson. As events in the movie continue to unveil, it is evident that none of the friendships were based on genuine reasons. In the film The Race for the Double Helix, Watson is interested in relating with Wilkins because he needs to access data that belonged to Franklin.

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The movie shows that on several occasions Watson would visit Wilkins in London to get more information concerning the progress that Franklin was making. By documenting her progress effectively, Franklin was soon able to isolate and perform successful imaging endeavors enabling her to come up with a new DNA form (Scott and Gilbert 91). Her happiness did not, however, correspond to her keenness and sensitivity. She failed to apprehend the fact that she was competing with Watsons and Crick’s secret agenda. These two secretly obtained her results and used them to come with new DNA structures. In one of the scenes, Watsons is seen discussing with Wilkins about the results that Franklins had obtained. However, this particular scene shows Wilkins taking matters more seriously than usual. He presents Watson with a pictorial representation of Franklin’s latest results without seeking permission from Franklin (Gibbons 65). Taking advantage, Watson goes on to meet Crick, and they decided to continue with their secret plan. In April 1953, Crick and His collaborator, Watson wins the race by announcing the double helix structure of the human DNA (Jackson). After the announcement had been made, Franklin move to Birkbeck Lab where she continued her work. Even at death, she might never have known the immense contributions that she made towards unearthing humanity’s DNA structure. A closer look at the events that took place in this movie can help identify, describe, and analyze the problems that Rosalind Franklin faced as a woman scientist in Great Britain.

One of the problems that Franklin faced while working on the project was social exclusion. Identification of this problem helps place Franklin’s experiences within the broader social context because the type of exclusion involved encompasses devising of systematic methods to block or deny access to individuals that do not belong to a particular societal faction (Hendrickson 383). In most cases, social exclusion breeds resistance against individuals or factions in society since their work is treated with no value accordance. This problem is evident in the movie from the scene where Watson, Wilkins, and Crick exclude Franklin from their close relationship. Besides, Watson would never take time to improve his relationship with Franklin although they were equals in the field. This would have been necessary given that their close association would improve the prospects of the project. Instead, Watson would leave Franklin behind and board a plane to London to spend time with Wilkins.

It is also important to note that the reason for the emergence of this problem embedded in social exclusion could have emanated from Franklins feeling of self-sufficiency. It stands to reason that she was overconfident, which attracted envy and resistance from her male peers. This phenomenon would explain why she rarely made efforts to connect with Watson although they were working in the same lab (Gibbons 67). This problem can also be analyzed based on the experiences of the four scientists. Such a point of view suggests that Wilkins, Crick, and Watson felt social excluded and therefore resulted in forming a secret alliance to resist Franklin. As such, they felt undermined and unappreciated by Franklin because she thought she was self-sufficient and better (Scott and Gilbert 92). As the movie unfolds, the resistance put up by these three would have produced the same experience for Franklin, but she as too occupied with fulfilling her objectives to notice

Additionally, the social exclusion problem that Franklin faced as a woman scientist serves to explain the “80% / 20% Rule” explored during this course. According to this rule, 20% of human activities are responsible for producing 80% of their outcomes in life (Hendrickson 381). As mentioned earlier, Wilkin often clashed with Franklin. A closer look at the unfolding of events in the movie reveals that Wilkins felt intimidated by Franklin, who in turn expressed her supremacy over him by the way she spoke. Ultimately, he felt socially excluded and responded by excluding her from his life. In return, Franklins became excluded from his social affairs. It may not be easy to understand why Wilkins eventually won by announcing results that Franklin had worked hard to attain. However, considering the “80% / 20% rule, it is logical to assert that she created the social exclusion problem, which eventually led to her insignificance in the project (Scott & Gilbert 92). Simply put, her contribution towards the outcome in the movie though easy to overlook had an enormous impact on the loss she finally suffered. This rule is also exhibited by Wilkins contribution to Cricks and Watson’s final announcement of the DNA structure. By merely producing a pictorial presentation of Franklin’s work, he turned the tables around and contributed immensely to the outcome in the movie.

More importantly, the problem of social exclusion as faced by Franklin brings out the attitudes of the four scientists as relates to competition. In most cases, social exclusion leads to a form of enmity that insinuates aggressive competition (Hendrickson 385). As witnessed in the movie, Franklin might have sensed that her fuse with Wilkins suggested that he was a competitor. However, she did not pay attention to competition as was expected of her. This would explain why she never took notice that Watson was working on a relationship with both Wilkins and Crick. If she had an attitude that paid respect to competition, she would have been quick to notice that Watsons had developed a close association with Wilkins, a man with whom she frequently clashed and had access to her work (Gibbons 69). Quite the opposite, Watson had a lot of respect for his opposition. This explains why he as willing to pay the price and go to London to discuss Franklins latest developments.

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Notably, the movie also depicts that Franklin faced a problem entrenched in gender role defiance. This problem can be defined regarding defiance that people belonging to a particular gender indirectly defy the authority or work on discriminating against efforts of a person/people from the opposite gender (Gibbons 90). As is common in most working places where women have been put in charge of their male counterparts, Franklin soon became a culprit in the course of the movie. This defiance was repeatedly being exhibited through Wilkins consistent squabbles with Franklin although she never saw it from that perspective. A closer analysis of this problem also reveals the reason why Watson and Crick worked tirelessly to obtain the progress of her work through Wilkins. Simply put, they could not stand the thought of watching a woman scientist take the glory in a male-dominated society (Hendrickson 391). The experiences of the three male counterparts also bring to light the problem concerning their attitudes towards public failure. To Watson, Wilkins and Creek allowing Franklin to succeed in her pursuit without their involvement in the story would have painted a public picture that they had been outshined by a woman (Scott and Gilbert 92). This explains why it was so easy for them to form a secret coalition. On the contrary, Franklin had no respect for the opinions of the public whether she failed in her quest or succeeded. Such an argument would explain why she never bothered to wonder how Watson had outshined her and produced an announcement that matched her stored data. Instead, she decided to move to another lab.

Remarkably, it is also possible that the problem that Franklin faced concerning gender role defiance emanated from her lack of respect to social capital. Basically, giving heed to social capital means that an individual can place value on all the resources necessary for goal attainment (Scott & Gilbert 94). Human capital forms a fair portion of such funds. As such, the only reason why Watson was able to beat Franklin since he valued people and their contribution. This explains why he devised a plan to make friends with his two male scientists. On the contrary, Franklin being plagued by “The perfect Girl syndrome” was unable to consider the influence that her male counterparts would have had on the success of her project (Gibbons 72). In other words, she knew that being males they expected her to come asking for help and would not have it that way. Eventually, her lack of respect for social capital united them on a single front, and she lost the race. From the movie, it is easy to realize that she was never as goal-oriented as her competitors. If this were the case, she would have laid aside her perfectionism mentality to establish collaborations like Watson.

One of the central moral issues arising from the case involves whether the actions taken through the collaboration of the three male scientists contributed to the highest possible happiness. Considering that Franklin had almost achieved her quest and that they took her information without seeking her permission or interpretation, their behavior was not morally correct although they contributed to humanity’s happiness. This aspect occurs because she still would have produced the same results through her handwork. However, assuming that she might have been unable to provide the same results, it is logical that their actions were morally sound. Morality in the arena of science also encompasses priority considerations. This action means that Watsons and Cricks secretive and cunning work can be justified based on the fact that it was of high priority to make the DNA discovery. On the same note, Franklin’s secretive efforts can be deemed as having been morally wrong because she did not give priority to the need to discover by involving her male counterparts. Nonetheless, when it comes to the moral issue embodied in the acquisition of permission Watson, Crick, and Wilkins failed to satisfy ethical standards. This failure is attributed to the fact that they reproduced her work and interpreted the same without explicit permission.

Works Cited

  • Gibbons, Michelle G. “Reassessing discovery: Rosalind Franklin, scientific visualization, and the structure of DNA.” Philosophy of Science 79.1 (2012): 63-80.
  • Hendrickson, Kenneth E. “Kersten T. Hall, The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double Helix. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. ix+ 242. ISBN 978-0-19-870459-1.£ 18.99 (hardback).” The British Journal for the History of Science 48.2 (2015): 380-403.
  • Jackson, Mick, director. The Race for the Double Helix. 1987.
  • Scott, James, and Gilbert Thompson. “The discovery of the structure of DNA.” Nobel Prizes That Changed Medicine. 2012. 89-111.


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