Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Confession: I have a semi-obsession with today’s featured woman.

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. By the age of 15, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. Her father, however, wanted her to be a social worker.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

She entered Newnham College in 1938. By 1945, she had earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University.

In 1951 she began working as a research associate at John Randall’s lab at King’s College. There she met Maurice Wilkins, both of whom were assigned to work on separate DNA projects. Wilkins, perhaps unsurprisingly, assumed Franklin was a technical assistant and not a peer. Franklin, being a woman, was shut out of certain opportunities…

“Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin’s colleagues went to men-only pubs.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Between 1951 and 1953, Franklin, with the help of a student, Raymond Gosling, “was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of what was probably a helical structure.”

“She presented her data at a lecture in King’s College at which James Watson was in attendance. In his book The Double Helix, Watson admitted to not paying attention at Franklin’s talk and not being able to fully describe the lecture and the results to Francis Crick. Watson and Crick were at the Cavendish Laboratory and had been working on solving the DNA structure. Franklin did not know Watson and Crick as well as Wilkins did and never truly collaborated with them.”

“It was Wilkins who showed Watson and Crick the X-ray data Franklin obtained. The data confirmed the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had theorized for DNA. In 1953, both Wilkins and Franklin published papers on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue with Watson and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA.”

In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While undergoing treatment she continued to work, publishing 13 papers throughout 1956 and 57.

She died in April, 1958.

In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix model of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin: The Badass Scientist whose research was responsible for the discovery of the DNA model.

Rosalind Franklin: The woman whose name you most likely never learned.

Read more about Franklin here.

Happy Women’s History Month.

****

So, why am I obsessed with the colossal shafting of Rosalind Franklin? Franklin represents to me all the hurdles that women did (and do) face in fields that are dominated by men. Shut out from networking and the casual sharing of information over dinners and clubs, in backrooms and labs, she STILL managed to produce results.

Current books which do mention Franklin talk about her abrasive attitude and difficulty to work with–traits thrown at groundbreaking women all the time. Imagine working, as the only woman, in an isolated environment, without access to the same information, and essentially being told to smile more.

Imagine what she could have done had she had access to the same information, the same level of academic involvement and confidence in her career, the same networks and assumptions.

Imagine indeed.

 

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