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What Photo 51 Taught Us: Is Competition Always Healthy?

Submitted by on August 4, 2013 – 11:05 PM One Comment

1081877_10151807930885097_1758161053_nOn February 28th, 1953, the structure of one of the most important molecules to be in existence was discovered. This discovery was to change the way we look at ourselves. This was the discovery of the secret of life. This was the structure of DNA. The importance of DNA cannot be emphasized in a few words, this molecule is responsible for literally everything that makes us ‘us’.


Also called the blueprint of life, the mystery behind its structure was the most substantial enigma of the 20th century. Nine years after this discovery, three people received the Noble Prize for it: James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. The ‘race’ to uncover the structure of DNA was a three-legged one. In London, at the King’s College was the duo of Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, James Watson and Francis Crick had teamed up with Maurice Wilkins (also from King’s College and the same department as Rosalind Franklin) and in the USA was the famous Linus Pauling (already a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry at the time).


Notice how I call it a ‘race’? It literally was one, whether to uncover DNA for the betterment of all of mankind and science or for more of a personal gain, we can’t be sure, but it is something that I wish to bring to attention in light of the contemporary challenges in medicine. Where Rosalind Franklin was busy taking X-ray crystallography photographs of DNA to understand the chemical basis of the structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson had adapted the ‘model building’ strategy to unravel this complex structure. The proposed structure of DNA by Crick and Watson was embarrassingly turned down by the critics and so was that of Pauling’s from USA.


Franklin on the other hand was persistent and in her quest came up with the image that was the key to unveiling the double-stranded, anti-parallel helical structure of DNA. In her preoccupation, this photo, also known as ‘Photo 51’, was ‘leaked’ in to the hands of Watson and Crick. Watson and Crick’s modified model based on Photo 51 was the one that we know today. Franklin never knew that her information was ‘used’ without her knowledge and was soon diagnosed with cancer.


She wasn’t with us when the Nobel Prize was awarded to the trio of Watson, Crick and Wilkins and she was barely mentioned at the ceremony. Was competition always healthy then? Where do we draw a line? What I have learnt from this story is that there always is a certain amount of competitiveness in all of us.


That is what brings out the best in us. However, when it comes to the betterment of humankind, which is something that is pivotal in the field of medicine, competition should be strictly governed. When we students choose to become doctors, we should realize this. Our first and foremost duty is to serve man selflessly.


In our long and complicated journey, we will come across all sorts of colleagues, the average, the good and the exceptional. We will have tough competition from all corners of the world, especially when most of us are looking for a pathway to practice outside of Pakistan. During this time, we should always be aware not to compromise our foremost duty over our personal gains. I have since started to think about it and am convinced that during my medical career, what should stand out to me (not to the world, but to me) the most, is not my cGPA, not the number of research publications under my name, not my board exam scores, not my electives or Letters of Recommendations, but the number of patients who speak to me and feel comforted.


That is what I would cherish the most on my personal resume. It was Rosalind Franklin’s 93rd birthday when I thought of writing this. Today, she is revered all over the world for her work. It is also postulated that her cancer was a result of over exposure to X-Rays during her work on DNA. Her epitaph reads: ‘Scientist – Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’.


About the Author: Manzar Shahid is a 3rd year medical student from Dow Medical College, Pakistan. He is interested in Clinical Neurology and a Board member of the NGO S.O.C.H. He can be reached at: [email protected]


About this article: This article is competing for the JPMS International Medical Writing Contest 2013

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  • huda naim

    excellent job! a really nice thought and well expressed , this is something me as an individual and all students from our field should acknowledge, respect and implement in their lives. best of luck! :)