The Women That Science Forgot: Part 7 Rosalind Franklin

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:

The Women that Science Forgot Part 6: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

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.

In this post we meet Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Cecilia blank

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an English astronomer born in Wendover in England in 1900. In 1919 she won a scholarship to study Physics, Biology and Chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge. Despite finishing her studies, she was not awarded a degree as Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948!

Payne-Gaposchkin realised that if she wished to pursue her studies further she would need to leave England. In 1925 she became the first person to earn a PhD from Radcliffe College. Her thesis examined the chemical make up of stars. From here she worked at the Harvard College Observatory, although this work was unofficial and unacknowledged until 1938.

At the time it was believed that stars and planets contained similar ratios of elements. Payne-Gaposchkin’s work identified that stars are actually made up of mostly hydrogen. Her thesis has been called “undoubtedly the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”.

When reviewing her thesis Henry Noriss Russel dissuaded Payne-Gaposchkin from presenting her conclusion because it went against the prevailing theory of the time. However, 4 years later he published work demonstrating Payne-Gaposchkin’s findings to be correct. He did acknowledge her briefly in his paper but Russel is still given credit for the discovery.

Russell essentially discouraged Payne-Gaposchkin from presenting her work, and went off and pursued her theory for 4 years. He then presented the finding as his, with a brief acknowledgement to her, but took the credit for the discovery.

Payne-Gaposchkin should be one of the most famous astronomers, her name should be in all the text books. But due to culutural femicide and her idea being essentially stolen she is not.

The Women that Science Forgot Part 5: Lise Meitner

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.

In this post we meet Physicist Lise Meitner.

Lise meitner

Meitner was born in Austria in 1878. She was forced to get a private education as women were not allowed to get a degree at public universities at the time. In 1905 she was the 2nd woman to get a PhD from the University of Vienna.

Meitner worked with Otto Hahn (a chemist) at the Max Plank Institute between 1906 and 1912. Together Hahn and Meitner discovered several new isotopes. In 1912 Meitner moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where she worked for a year without a salary as a ‘guest’ in Hahn’s department. In 1938 Meitner (as an academic of Jewish descent) was forced to flee the Nazi regime in Germany.

Meitner’s biggest contribution was the discovery of Nuclear Fission, for which Hahn received the credit (and the Nobel) .

The standard story of the discovery of Nuclear Fission goes like this:

In December 1938, Hahn and his colleague Strausman were trying to create elements heavier than Uranium by bombarding it with neutrons. Instead they found that they had created Barium. Sometimes Meitner is included in this story, but only to say that she left the team before the Barium discovery.

However, if you dig a little deeper the standard story falls apart. In truth the discovery was the culmination of a 4 year collaboration and the Nuclear Physics was as important to the discovery as the Chemistry, Meitner started the work and was the scientific leader of the investigation for four years – this is evident from the publications from the team at the time. When Hahn and Strausman discovered that they had created Barium they could not explain it. It was Meitner, in collaboration with her nephew, Frisch who first provided an explanation for what was happening. They explained how bombarding the Uranium with neutrons split the atom, as the repulsion of so many protons overcame strong nuclear force; and E=MC2 explained the source of energy released in the experiments. They concluded that you could not create a stable element beyond Uranium for these reasons.

It is clear that Physics played as much of a role in this discovery as Chemistry. However, only Hahn was awarded the Nobel in 1944 for the discovery. there are many reasons why Meitner’s contribution is played down. Firstly, though he and Meitner were close friends, he was afraid to credit her in case the Nazi regime found out he was still collaborating with her. This explains why the standard story took hold at the time, but doesn’t account for why in the 60+ years since the Nobel, the story hasn’t changed. Clearly, the fact the Meitner was a woman plays a part in this.

Meitner was an amazing woman, who refused to work on the atom bomb when she was invited to join the Manhattan project. If you would like to know more about Meitner, and the discovery of Nuclear Fission this video of a talk by Ruth Lewin is a great start. There is also a book about Meitner written by Lewin.

The Women that Science Forgot Part 4: Ada Lovelace

This series explores women in science who have made significant contributions to their field and yet are relatively unknown. The first part of the series (here) explains why this is the case and explores the idea of cultural femicide. In this fourth part of the series we will meet Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer.

 ada lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, she was born in 1815 into a wealthy family. She described her approach as ‘Poetic science’ and described herself as an ‘Analyst’. Ada was privately educated in maths and science by William Frend, William King, and Mary Somerville. Her remarkable aptitude in mathematics emerged when she was around 17 and mathematics and it’s study dominated much of her adult life.

In the 1840s Lovelace worked on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a very early and primitive computer. Between 1842 and 1843 Lovelace translated an article by Italian Luigi Menabrea, supplementing it with her own notes. This article was a transcript of a talk given by Babbage at the university of Turin. Within Lovelace’s notes is what is considered to be the first computer programme.

Within her notes Lovelace emphasised the difference between the analytical engine and previous calculating machines, especially the ability to be programmed to solve problems of any complexity. Lovelace even wrote that the machine could compose music, if music could be reduced to programme/code. This was a massive conceptual leap and insight into the potential of computers and computing. Lovelace anticipated the capabilities and implications of modern computing 100 years before they were realised.

In the 1990s two authors cast doubt over Lovelace’s contribution and whether she really was the first computer programmer. Allan Bromley and Bruce Collier claimed that Lovelace simply wrote up programmes that Babbage had created. Collier went as far as to call Lovelace ‘delusional’.

Others have made the argument that Lovelace derived an algorithm from a formula, i.e. Babbage provided the formula for calculating Bernculli numbers but Lovelace created the programme.

This is a clear example of cultural femicide through minimisation since Babbage himself credits Lovelace for the programme within his own writings. Furthermore, Babbage notes that Lovelace found an error in his calculations, which could also make her the first ‘debugger’. Despite this evidence Lovelace’s contribution is questioned, because she is a woman.

The Women that Science Forgot: Part 2 Vera Rubin

This second post in the series tells the story of Physicist Vera Rubin. (The first post, which explains all about cultural femicide and why these women are forgotten can be found here)

Vera Rubin

Vera Rubin is an American Astronomer born in 1928. She earned her degree at Vassar College and attempted to enrol on her MSc at Princeton. However, Princeton didn’t allow women to graduate from their Astronomy programme until 1975! Rubin went on to study for her Masters at Cornell University.

During her Masters in 1951 she observed deviations in the motions of galaxies, Rubin suggested that the galaxies might be rotating around unknown centres, rather than simply moving outwards as suggested by the Big Bang Theory at the time.

She studied for a PhD in 1954. Her thesis examined the distribution of galaxies in the Universe. Dr Rubin found that galaxies are not randomly distributed throughout the galaxy, but tend to occur in clumps. This was a significant finding, but it was TWENTY YEARS before other scientists began to explore Rubin’s findings and discovered that she was correct.

However, this was not Rubin’s only significant discovery. Following her PhD Rubin went on to work on The Galaxy Rotation Problem: if we look at galaxies, and how fast they spin then the visible mass (all the stars, planets and other stuff they contain) is not enough to hold them together. Think about when you are on a roundabout in the park, as it spins faster you start to feel yourself being pulled off it. If the roundabout was spun REALLY fast, you’d be flung off. This is essentially the galaxy rotation problem, there is not enough mass to create enough gravity to hold the galaxy together as it spins. Rubin proposed that there must be a lot of unseen mass which creates more gravity and holds the galaxies together. In fact, Rubin’s calculations showed that there must be 10 times as much unseen mass as visible mass. This unseen mass is called ‘Dark Matter’.

The discovery of Dark Matter is a very significant one, equivalent to Steven Hawking’s discovery of Black Holes; and yet Hawking is a household name and Rubin is virtually unknown. This is cultural femicide in action. Many people will have heard of Dark Matter, there is a lot of research being conducted and lots of articles in the popular science press which reference it. And yet Rubin’s name isn’t mentioned.

Vera Rubin’s significant contribution to physics is ignored/dismissed because she is a woman.