WOMEN WHO DESERVE TO BE CELEBRATED: As part of its social equity agenda, Eco Profit is commencing a Blog series featured on selected women from history. The thought behind this is driven by the lack of acknowledgement in society for many of the dynamic discoveries and achievements of women from the past, including the recent past. Unfortunately, in many cases the term Matilda effect applies which is the attribution of the achievements of women to their male colleagues.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. In recent years, her story has become famous as one of a woman whose scientific work was overlooked during her lifetime.
According to the history books – or even a quick google search – credit for the 1953 discovery of DNA’s structure goes to James Watson and Francis Crick. The two shared a Nobel prize for their discovery in 1962, along with Franklin’s former colleague Maurice Wilkins. But the previous year, Crick himself admitted in a letter that “the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin.”
So how did Franklin get so close to scientific glory, only to be written out of history?
Franklin was born in London in 1920 and was educated in private schools and at Cambridge University. She showed an early passion for science, and after graduating, she worked as a research chemist in the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, with significant work on the structure of coals earning her a PhD from Cambridge in 1945. After the war, she found a job in Paris where she became proficient in analysing carbons using X-ray crystallography.
It was this specialism that led her to work with a team at King’s College in London that was studying DNA. By all accounts, Franklin and her new colleague Maurice Wilkins didn’t get along, though the two did still make progress. In May 1952, Franklin took the picture that would become famous – Photograph 51 – capturing the X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA.
This image, along with other data from Franklin’s research, made its way to Watson and Crick, who were also studying DNA at the same time. This data gave them the insight they needed to determine the true double helix structure of DNA, and they soon published a paper in Nature announcing their discovery. Franklin and Wilkins are credited in the paper, though Watson did later cheerfully describe his acquisition of the data as “burglary”.
Around this time, Franklin left King’s for the crystallography lab at Birkbeck college, where she studied the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. She was hugely successful in this work and was asked to create virus models to display at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair Science Exhibition.
She died of ovarian cancer at just 38, several years before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins. An inscription on her tombstone reads: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind”. Now her legacy goes far beyond that. Fifty years after her death, Franklin’s sister reflected on the incredible way that her reputation has grown over the years. She attributes this to the rise of the feminist movement, and also the robust response to Watson’s critical portrayal of her sister in his memoir, The Double Helix.
Rosalind Franklin may have missed out on the Nobel, but as her sister notes, today she is remembered in a multitude of ways. Her name graces awards, science institutes and even an entire university in Chicago. And in 2022, her legacy will extend into space, as the planned robotic rover named Rosalind Franklin sets off to explore Mars.