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This image, the work of humanist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin and PhD student Ray Gosling, helped to bring about a profoundly enlarged understanding of humanity itself, facilitating the discovery of the structure of DNA. In 1950, Franklin was recruited by John Randall of King’s College, London, where she worked alongside Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling, using X-ray diffraction to study the structure of DNA. In this, her meticulous and groundbreaking work produced the X-ray patterns – and accompanying report – which provided the vital information for Francis Crick and David Watson to publish, in 1953, their DNA model. As Crick (another humanist) would later write: ‘the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin’.

Rosalind Franklin was known for her absolute precision and devotion to the scientific method. Her friend and biographer, Anne Sayre, wrote that Franklin’s ‘choice was science,’ and that while her ’commitment to this choice was total; it was also joyful’. This commitment to science and its possibilities also underpinned Franklin’s humanist philosophy. In a letter to her father in 1940 she had written:

I agree that faith is essential to success in life… but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining… I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.

For Rosalind Franklin, this belief in ‘doing our best’ for the betterment of the world was what brought about this image – so vitally important, even as it was initially intelligible to only a few. Today, the image serves to remind us to question who is remembered, and who is overlooked, in telling the story of humanity’s achievements. For years, Franklin’s pioneering work was downplayed or forgotten altogether, and her early death came over a decade before Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded a Nobel Prize for their own work on DNA. But Photo 51 also stands as a symbol of what we can learn about ourselves through science, creativity, and collaboration with others: three central strands of the humanist approach.

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