Science in the shadows

For anyone working in a research-intensive university, or for anyone with an interest in the life sciences, today (July 25) should be a red letter day. Had she lived, Rosalind Franklin would have turned 89 on this day. But the shocking thing is that very few people will have any idea at all who she was, and why her work as a scientist changed everything. So let me explain.

Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, the daughter of a London merchant banker, and a member of an extended family that had included businessmen and politicians but which also had a tradition of social engagement and concern. She received an excellent education, culminating with a PhD from Cambridge University. Although she died tragically young at the age of 38 from cancer, she had a distinguished career as an academic scientist, working consecutively in King’;s College and Birkbeck College, London.

While in King’s College, she used x-ray photography to explore the structure of DNA. One of these photographs (‘Photograph 51’ taken in 1952) was shown to Francis Crick and James Watson of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and using this they developed their theory of the double helix structure of DNA, on which so much modern science is based. Watson and Crick published their theory in Nature, and received the credit for the discovery, including a Nobel Prize. While Franklin was credited with a role in this discovery, she received far less public acclaim and is hardly remembered.

Rosalind Franklin was not the first person to receive less than full recognition of her work. However, in her case there is ample evidence that the reason was not unconnected with sexism. When James Watson published his account of the discovery in the book, The Double Helix, in 1968, this is what he had to say about Franklin:

Though her  features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents.

He also refers to her in the book as ‘Rosie’, a form of her name that she did not use herself, and which some believe showed an inherently patronising attitude towards her. Similarly, it is said that the culture in the College was affected by sexism, and that a forthright and strong-minded woman (which is what she was) would have made many traditionalist men uncomfortable at that time. At any rate, despite her vital role in this most important scientific discovery of our generation, her name was largely written out of the script.

Thankfully, there are places where the memory of Rosalind Franklin is kept alive, such as in this American scientific institution named after her and which emphasises her significance, and in a very minor way, in this blog. May we always recognise people for what they are and what they do, regardless of their background.

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5 Comments on “Science in the shadows”

  1. Vincent Says:

    A woman, a Jew, from a family with suspicious social leanings and very wealthy. The miracle is she get as far as she did, where and when she did. For whatever chance she might have had in the US would have been dramatically reduced in the UK.
    In the early ’90, I was making a living in the UK. Where I overheard this tiny Q&A. Q;’Is Mr So and so English’. A;’No, just English speaking’.
    Both the answerer and myself knew well that the So-and-so family lived in the UK for 600 years and had loaned moneys to various monarchs. But all of this came to nothing in the eyes of the answerer.

  2. science Says:

    Yeah, science is always leading everyone to their own world, isn’t it?

  3. Dr. Uni Says:

    Science has left no aspect of man untouched . Modern science , which began 300 years ago , has been enlarging , our knowledge of the environment at an ever-increasing pace and society has become more and more dependent on the practical effects of science .

  4. Sigmund Says:

    I think the whole ‘Rosalind Franklin was ignored’ meme doesn’t quite stand up to the evidence. If you take the time to examine the copy of Nature that contained the publication of the double helix you will notice that she is very prominently featured – at least as prominently as any similar scientific discovery I can recall. Its only with hindsight that the Watson and Crick paper is held up to be the classic publication from that issue while the Franklin paper is perhaps a little too technical and doesn’t contain the necessary history making quote
    “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”
    The Nobel prize is not awarded to deceased individuals no matter how worthy their contributions to the discovery and unfortunately she had died by the time the double helix was deemed a suitable discovery for the prize. Of course although the other member of the prominent foursome, Maurice Wilkins got the Noble along with Watson and Crick it is questionable whether he was the least worthy of the four. What the committee would have done faced with a choice of four individuals (the prize has a maximum of three winners) if Franklin had survived is speculative. They may have ignored her in favor of Wilkins although the easier option would be to split the award into medicine and chemistry and award two prizes – but again that’s also idle speculation.
    You can read all the relevant papers from that issue of Nature here – you might notice that there were more than four individuals involved in the discovery – Rosalind Franklin was not the only one who missed out on the Nobel, so did Raymond Gosling, Alec Stokes and Herbert Wilson.

  5. We have at least Rosalind Franklin Awards. Unfortunately she didn’t have chance to get the ultimate award for her work.

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