This series of blog posts explores the issue of cultural femicide in Science, part 1 (here) explains what cultural femicide is and contains links to each of the women scientist’s posts. It is hoped that through this series the contribution of these women can be more widely recognised and that perhaps some young women will see female role models who have succeeded in science.
This post is about probably the most famous of our women: Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920, she showed a high level of intelligence from an early age with her Aunt commenting that “Rosalind is alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, & invariably gets her sums right”. Franklin had many successes during her schooling, winning awards and eventually leaving school with six distinctions. She won a scholarship for college, but after her father’s encouragement gave the scholarship to a ‘deserving’ refugee student.
Franklin earned her degree in Chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1941. She went to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Assosciation to fulfuill the requirements of the National Service Act. Here her work focussed on the porosity of coal and found that substances were expelled from coal according to molecular size during heating. This helped to classify coals for use not just as an energy source but in things like gas-masks too. For this work she was awarded her PhD in 1945.
Franklin then spent some time in France where she learned advanced techniques of X-Ray Diffraction and this led to her being appointed to a post in the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit at Kings College London.
By all accounts Franklin did not get on well with her colleagues at Kings; she was a no-nonsense woman, confident in her abilities and did not conform to the quiet reserved female stereotype. Franklin spoke her mind and was not afraid to stand up for herself and her ideas against the men she worked with. This made her time at Kings difficult as she had regular problems with one of her colleagues – Maurice Wilkins, who was a shy and quiet man. The situation was not helped when her boss John Randall handed the X-Ray diffraction of DNA to Franklin, without communicating this to Wilkins.
When the work at Kings revealed two types of DNA strand (named DNA A and DNA B), Randall split the project between Franklin and Wilkins. Franklin was to focus her research on DNA A and Wilkins on DNA B.
In January 1953 Franklin began preparing papers where she presented evidence that DNA had a double helix structure.
This is where the controversy comes into Franklin’s story. At the same time that Franklin was taking X-ray diffraction images of DNA, two researchers at Cambridge; Francis Crick and James Watson were attempting to build a moelcular model of DNA. At some point during the early part of 1953 Crick and Watson were provided with the now famous ‘Photo 51’ (the clearest image ever taken at that time of DNA which clearly showed a double helix structure). Using this and some more of Franklin’s data which they were given when Franklin decided to leave Kings, Crick and Watson were able to build an accurate model of DNA.
Crick and Watson are credited with the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, but Franklin had been gathering the evidence for this for some time. Without Franklin’s picture and her data, Watson and Crick would not have been able to demonstrate the accuracy of their model. In truth, Franklin discovered the structure of DNA.
Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1962, after Franklin’s death from cancer.
Franklin’s contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA are becoming more widely recognised, but sexism and cultural femicide definitely played a role in her not getting the credit she deserved in her lifetime.
You can read more about Rosalind Franklin (in the words of her sister) here
And this youtube film dramatises the discovery of the structure of DNA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tmNf6ec2kU