Lucille Heller, EdD, passed away on Dec. 26, 2022, at age 97. In July 2022, she sat for an interview via Zoom from her residence in New Jersey to share her memories of working with Dr. Rosalind Franklin.
Lucille Heller, EdD, was part of history in the making 72 years ago when she worked for a brief time as part of a small DNA research team that, with the addition of physical chemist Dr. Rosalind Franklin in early 1951, helped decode the structure of DNA — one of the greatest discoveries in modern biology.
Dr. Heller, who had earned a BA in physics from Syracuse University before working in radiation safety, was 25 at the time. She witnessed innovations that sparked a seismic shift in molecular biology as Dr. Franklin oversaw the design and application of a special X-ray camera and, aided by her PhD student Raymond Gosling, experimented with humidifying DNA fibers and exposing them to an X-ray beam.
“I didn’t realize the significance of what we were working on at the time,” Dr. Heller said. “I remember helping Gosling set things up, and I think I helped sometimes with taking the X-rays, and I helped Freda Ticehurst, the lab photographer, develop some of the images. My contribution was very small. But in retrospect, especially when Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel, I realized: I was there.”
“When I think about what’s been done with DNA, I get very excited. I was so lucky to be there, to know Rosalind Franklin. It makes me feel very proud.”
A native of Pennsylvania, Dr. Heller traveled to England in September 1950 with her new husband, an organic chemist. It was a yearlong trip that was part honeymoon, part scientific internship. The couple, who met while working for the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, arranged volunteer stints — he at a lab studying petroleum at University College London, she in the 31-person physics and biophysics lab of Professor J.T. Randall at King’s College London.
Dr. Franklin arrived to begin a three-year fellowship the following January, still torn about leaving the research and cosmopolitan life she loved in Paris and returning to London, with its post-war rationing and rubble. Intent on acclimating to a new lab and a new field — biophysics — she focused on conquering the challenge before her.
“She was always very nice to me,” recalled Dr. Heller. “But I think most of the people in the lab were not friendly with her. She didn’t reach out much to other people, to other women in the lab. She came across as highly motivated and dedicated to her work.”
Dr. Lucille Heller is mentioned six times in the definitive 2002 biography by Brenda Maddox, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.” Erroneously cited as Louise Heller, she never asked for a correction.
“A lot of people call me Louise,” she laughed.
She described in the book her first impression of Dr. Franklin as “very attractive, very bright, very impatient and very opinionated,” and as having “the sort of drive that the work was more important than anything else.” Her recollections include how Dr. Franklin routinely skipped morning coffees, and the afternoon tea, a “command performance” ordered by Professor Randall, who liked to mingle with his staff.
“Except for Gosling and Freda, she had very little contact with other lab members, as far as I could tell,” said Dr. Heller, who recalled an invitation to dinner at Dr. Franklin’s flat and the roast rabbit she was served.
“I remember she had trouble with the espresso machine,” said Dr. Heller, who also recalled that Dr. Franklin, while still new on the job, once asked her to “rewire the X-ray machine,” a task outside of Dr. Heller’s skill set.
“I was relieved when Dr. Randall found out and let me off the hook,” she said.
Dr. Heller had an outsider’s view of the Randall lab’s politics, but she soon recognized the dark cloud between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Maurice Wilkins, also engaged in early DNA research at King’s. The conflict was fueled by mixed messages from Professor Randall over their respective roles and responsibilities. Dr. Franklin had been brought in to advance the DNA research begun by Wilkins and Gosling. Wilkins assumed she was joining his team.
“It was very tense,” said Dr. Heller. “The fact that she was brought in and Wilkins was displaced to a certain extent, I think, was the source of the animosity there.
“Wilkins was very quiet and not easy to get to know,” Dr. Heller added. “I had no problems with him. But I just felt that he made no effort to be friendly.”
Dr. Heller and her husband, Howard Heller, who died in 1996, lived very frugally during their time in London.
“I had been supporting my family and couldn’t contribute much,” she said. “We were very poor.”
The couple lived in one room, on $28 a week. They shared a kitchen with another roomer, who had lost an eye during the war while serving as an ambulance driver. The landlady was fond of the young Americans and included them in holiday dinners and social outings.
Dr. Heller and Dr. Franklin, had they ever shared the details of their lives, might have discovered similarities in their backgrounds. Just five years apart in age, they were both born into Judaism. They were both devoted to science from an early age and excelled at math. Both coped with traumatic experiences. While Dr. Heller was mourning the loss of her father, who died when she was 14, Dr. Franklin, then a student at the University of Cambridge, was volunteering as an air raid warden during the Blitz.
After five months in the same lab, their paths diverged. Dr. Heller left King’s to continue her honeymoon before returning stateside to build a life that included a long and happy marriage and raising two sons. She earned a master’s in physics and a doctorate in mathematics education from Rutgers University, where she subsequently taught, then joined the administration, serving as associate provost before her retirement. Across her professional and academic career, she advocated for the advancement of women in STEM.
Dr. Franklin’s life and work also took a fulfilling turn. After capturing Photo 51, which revealed the three-dimensional structure of DNA, she left King’s for Birkbeck College, where she illuminated the structure of viruses. Her research and the tools she helped develop continue to open new fields of investigation and new means of prevention and healing.
“When I think about what’s been done with DNA, I get very excited,” Dr. Heller said. “I was so lucky to be there, to know Rosalind Franklin. It makes me feel very proud.”
Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.