Posted tagged ‘James Watson’

Science in the shadows

July 25, 2009

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.