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Rosalind Franklin's artistic legacy

Artists Wyllie and O Hagan strive to rekindle a lost legend

Dawn Powell 5 August 2007

Detail from 'Photo 51 Artists Experiments' by Wyllie and O Hagan (© by the artists)

We were fuelled by anger that Franklin’s work wasn’t recognised

It’s been nearly fifty years since British scientist Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. Although she died young, Franklin made a significant contribution to the understanding of DNA. She took the first clear X-ray photograph of DNA, revealing its double helix nature. This image – known as Photo 51 – played a significant part in James Watson and Francis Crick’s groundbreaking discovery about the structure of DNA. But while the two men went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, Franklin’s contribution went largely unrecognised – a combination of her early death and the difficulties facing female scientists in the 1950s. Today, few people outside of the scientific community have heard of Franklin.

But two London based artists, Denise Wyllie and Clare O Hagan, are hoping to change all that with a series of artworks on Franklin. Wyllie and O Hagan first became interested in Franklin when they discovered her story while doing an art residency at a laboratory that researched DNA. Wyllie explains: “We were talking to a fellow artist about our project and she said, ‘Oh you know about Rosalind Franklin, of course’, but of course, we didn’t.” Intrigued, the artists researched Franklin’s story and were shocked by what they found. O Hagan says: “We were fuelled by anger that we knew nothing about Franklin’s work and that her work wasn’t recognised. It inspired us to make art to acknowledge her scientific achievements.”

Franklin’s story particularly resonated with O Hagan because she too had had ovarian cancer. She says: “I was diagnosed at an early stage and treatment has been successful, but many women are not as fortunate. Denise and I developed great compassion for the women we met in the ovarian cancer community. We were saddened by Franklin’s early death and it provided an impetus for us to use our art to raise awareness of the disease.”

X-ray echoes Rosalind Franklin: Photo 51 © Denise Wyllie and Clare O Hagan. Series of six three-dimensional, low relief, mixed media artworks on board which reference the famous x-ray diffraction patterns created by DNA crystals

Wyllie and O Hagan combined painting, printmaking, model making in resin, digital technology, and video techniques to make a mixed media collection of artwork that celebrates Franklin’s contribution to science. The first time they showed their work was, fittingly enough, as part of an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s discovery. O Hagan says: “It was a statement – we wanted to acknowledge Rosalind in the story of DNA.” She adds that scientists who saw the work were very positive about it. “It was rewarding to introduce many people to Franklin’s story. Many women scientists were delighted to see Franklin’s work being honoured in such a creative way.”

In fact, one of their prints that included the Franklin work was given to the late Professor Francis Crick himself by someone who had purchased it from the artists. “By all accounts, he was impressed!” Wyllie said. Their work has taken them across the globe and for the past three years, a Wyllie O Hagan Franklin print has been presented to the winner of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance’s annual Rosalind Franklin Excellence in Research Award.

Dr Yi Pan, a neurologist and ovarian cancer survivor, believes artwork is the perfect way of honouring scientists who research ovarian cancer. She says: “It encourages all physicians and scientists to have more new discoveries in ovarian cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The art not only makes a connection between beauty and science, but also connects all ovarian cancer survivors.”

Wyllie and O Hagan intend to keep making Franklin-based artwork in the future, both to raise awareness of Franklin and of ovarian cancer. O Hagan says: “We are committed to this work long-term. It is not a cosmetic exercise.” However, as they are self funded, it is not going to be an easy task. O Hagan explains: “We actively seek sponsorship and exhibition venues for our Franklin artworks. We sell prints and license images to generate revenue for our Franklin art activities.” They are also keen to show their work to new audiences: Wyllie says: “Franklin was an innovator and crossed new boundaries. We are determined to get her work acknowledged and we doing this by taking our work outside the confines of the gallery. For example, we are have created a YouTube video on Franklin and posted work on the internet.”

Wyllie and O Hagan will be exhibiting their latest work in September at the Smith Killian Fine Arts Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, as part of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month.

Related information

A wide variety of the artists’ work can be seen on their website and on YouTube.

You can support the artists by buying their works via the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance online store here.