Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin, Forgotten Discoverer of DNA

Rosalind Franklin

If you ever spend more than two hours in Cambridge (UK), you’re sure to walk past The Eagle Pub and hear the story of its claim to fame. It is here that James Watson and Francis Crick – of DNA prominence – celebrated discovering the “secret of life.” This jolly story of two scientists drinking to an incredible breakthrough conjures images of smiling men sitting around beer glasses talking excitedly about how they’ve just jolted science into a new era. And that’s probably a good enough estimation of what happened – except that there should have been at least one other person at their table: a woman. The lady in question died of ovarian cancer a few years after they had that beer, and her work, which hugely contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, was largely forgotten. That woman was Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) had a short but very eventful life, the work of which has been underappreciated for decades. Rosalind Franklin’s story is one of a brilliant child from a privileged background, making the most of what the circumstances of birth offered her. She was born into a wealthy, well-connected British family. Her father’s uncle was Herbert Samuel (later Viscount Samuel), appointed Home Secretary in 1916, and the first practising Jew to serve in the British Cabinet. Her aunt, Helen Carolin Franklin, was a trade unionist and suffragist married to the Attorney General of British Mandate of Palestine.

Being quite the young prodigy herself, Rosalind ended up studying natural sciences at Cambridge University. There’s a lot of great things about Cambridge but the place has some serious drawbacks, and valuing tradition above almost all else is one of them (and I speak from experience …). This hold on the past – and a lot of misogyny, I’m sure – made Cambridge very slow to accept women in its midst. Although the first colleges for women were founded in 1869 (Girton College) and in 1872 (Newnham College), the first women students were only examined in 1882 and attempts to make women full members of the university did not succeed until 1947. Yes, ladies and gentlemen – Hitler had to be defeated and the atomic bomb dropped before the great dons of Cambridge could decide it’s about time they gave women the rights men have had at that institution for almost 750 years (not that I think there was a caustative link between these events – nevertheless it’s quite mindboggoling). In fact, at the time that Rosalind Franklin was at Cambridge, she could not obtain a degree there – something about a wrong set of sex chromosomes and the incorrect reproductive organs – so she simply graduated with honors and was awarded the B.A. post factum in 1947 with all the other former female graduates.

Of course Franklin is best known (and should be absolutely famous) for doing the X-ray work on which the model of DNA was based. In Crick’s own words, Franklin’s work was “the data we actually used.” However, she was not properly credited in any of the scientific publications and the popular science book published by Watson (The Double Helix) is full of insinuations about her not understanding her work and gives her little credit where it’s very obviously due. Ironically, prior to this (unfairly damning) account, Franklin’s input into the discovery was practically totally forgotten.

In his book Watson tells the story of how on 30 January 1953, without Franklin’s permission or knowledge, Franklin’s collaborator (and future Nobel Prize laureate) Maurice Wilkins showed Watson Franklin’s now-famous photograph 51. It was a bit of a “I’ll show you the stuff I’m not supposed to if you show me the stuff I shouldn’t really be seeing” and Watson showed Wilkins a pre-publication manuscript by Linus Pauling and Robert Corey with their ideas about the structure of DNA. Franklin and her King’s College collaborate Raymond Gosling’s photo 51 gave Watson and Crick critical insights into the DNA structure.

This was the image that confirmed the helical structure of DNA. Further unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had independently determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix and the location of the phosphate groups on the outside of the structure. However, even though Watson and Crick were aware of her publications which were in press and, moreover, she presented her research in seminars which Watson attended, her work was not acknowledged in the famous Nature paper.

There’s ample evidence that Watson is a pretty bigoted man (see: his theory that race is a determinant of intellectual potential); he’s likely sexist as well as racist and didn’t like the idea of sharing the authorship of his most important paper with a woman. Shockingly, even though Watson and Crick ignored Franklin, they did offer co-authorship to Maurice Wilkins. However, he declined as he had no input into the model. Years later, he expressed regret on not discussing authorship further, which hopefully means he felt saying “thanks but no thanks chaps” was a bit too little and instead he should have perhaps said “how about you talk to Rosalind about this, since you used a lot of her work?” Ultimately, the acknowledgment she got in the paper was very muted and always coupled with the name of Wilkins (even though they used a lot of her results!).

Soon after the whole DNA debacle, Franklin left King’s College – she never got along with Wilkins and didn’t particularly enjoy working there (perhaps institutionalized sexism, which included the fact that women scientists were not allowed to eat lunch in the common room where the men did, had something to do with it). She moved to Birkbeck College in London and started working on viruses, ultimately publishing 17 papers in five years. Her group’s findings laid the foundation for structural virology as we know it today.

However, by then her life was nearing its untimely end. In the summer of 1956 she noticed that she was having trouble buttoning up her skirt and that there was a lump on the side of her abdomen. The lump turned out to be ovarian cancer. Franklin started therapy but never stopped working, and her research group continued to produce results – seven papers in 1956 and a further six in 1957 (in science speak this means: a lot). However, there was little the doctors could do for her and she died at the young age of just 37. Four years later Watson, Crick, and Wilkins got the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA and her name never once came up. It took decades for her legacy to come to light and she is still all too often forgotten today. In fact, she has become a poster child (woman) for the omission of women’s work in science, and the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin award and the Rosalind Franklin Society are set up specifically with the aim of increasing the visibility of women in science.

Her death certificate read: “A Research Scientist, Spinster, Daughter of Ellis Arthur Franklin, a Banker.” There are more words in it pertaining to her dad than to her – which is very symptomatic. We’re talking about the woman whose work allowed discovering the DNA double helix (perhaps the most iconic geometric structure ever) and instead of her work, the obituary mentions her marital status… it’s a pretty poignant statement of the only thing society valued in women and all too often does so till this day.

However, to end with on a happy note – a few years ago Quentin Blake (whose illustrations you’re sure to recognize if you ever read Roald Dahl’s books) was commissioned to make a series of drawings to celebrate 800 years of the University of Cambridge. In one of them, Rosalind Franklin appears side by side with Watson and Crick looking at a huuuuge DNA double helix – finally restored in the popular perception of the discovery to her rightful place, by a children’s book illustrator. Perhaps not the most obvious person to do it, but it’s an act long overdue.

About Maria:
A recovering scientist, healthcare analyst and junkie of all things gender and women's health

Comments

  1. Monika Platek says:

    This is kind of scientific archaeology Michel Foucault would appreciate a lot, do do I. The knowledge about science and those who contributed seems to be so much misspelled by omitting letter “s” and staying just with “Mr”. Watson and Crick are as obvious for us as Copernicus and Einstein, and while reading what Maria Pawlowska wrote I start thinking who – how many Ms and Mrs are fact is behind/ in front or side by side of Copernicus and Einstein just left aside to make “Mr.” the only to be visible.

  2. This article gives a poignant example of the way that women have been written out of history. Thank you for bringing attention to Rosalind Franklin’s life, achievements and story.

  3. Maria, you’re the kind of scientist that helps science make sense! I knew that Franklin had died young–but I didn’t know she had gone on to Birkbeck and continued working after her time at Cambridge. Still a tragedy that she died so young–and it seems absurd to me that she couldn’t/can’t be awarded the Nobel posthumously (not that that matters … but it does)–but it makes me feel a little better knowing she kept on keeping on and didn’t let the egomaniacal behavior (or let’s just say it “theft!”) of a few men stop her.

  4. Thanks! It felt good to do my bit to set the record straight on at least some of the sexism rampant in the sciences!

  5. I LOVE Rosalind Franklin. She is the only person I remember learning about in my anthropology class. And when I met two of the Guerrilla Girls back in the day, I was so excited that one of them was reviving Franklin’s name. Thanks for this article, Maria!

  6. Rosalind Franklin is definitely being written back into the history books — most of the recently published books and textbooks on biology that I’ve seen place her name side by side with Watson and Crick. It’s too bad Nobel Prizes aren’t awarded posthumously because otherwise it seems certain she would have been recognized by that august body.

    I definitely recommend watching the NOVA special if you haven’t seen it already. Interesting both to science geeks and anyone who gives a crap about sexism and women’s rights.

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