Formidable Women – Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

rosalind Franklin

On the days preceding and ending with International Women’s Day, I intended to write about four formidable women from history, to remind people of the recognition they deserved but were often denied. However, I had scheduled a memorial service in the local church for the two women who had been dearest to me for March 8th. Subsequently, preoccupied with remembered loss and sorrow, I was unable to write anything on that very special day.

Now, I am Europe for a month to visit friends and relatives in Austria and Germany, perhaps for the last time. However, I must still tell you, to give her, her due, of my impressions of “The Dark Lady of DNA,” as she was titled by her biographer, Brenda Maddox.

Today, let us remember…


Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)



Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London, England in 1920. She was an extremely intelligent child and knew by the age of 15 that she wanted to grow up to be a scientist. She was able to attend a high school which taught physics and chemistry to girls, then entered Cambridge University in 1938 to study chemistry. After she graduated, Franklin managed to obtain a research grant and worked for a year in a laboratory, later becoming an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA) until 1947.

During her years in Britain, Franklin grew to be a proficient researcher despite her many encounters with prejudice against women. Her next move, however, was most rewarding and came with the respect due. She moved to Paris to continue her research and there learned X-ray diffraction techniques at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l‘Etat.

With her newfound knowledge, Franklin was offered a three-year research scholarship at King’s College in London to set-up and improve X-ray crystallography in 1951. She arrived while another researcher, Maurice Wilkins, who was already using X-ray crystallography in an attempt to solve the DNA problem at King’s College, was away. Upon his return, Wilkins assumed that Franklin had been hired to be his assistant. This erroneous assumption would deny Franklin any amicable cooperation from Wilkins for the rest of her life.

At the Cavendish Laboratory, Linus Pauling, an American chemist, was working on building molecular models of the structure of DNA. Pauling later cited several reason to explain how he had been misled about the structure, among his reasons, the lack of high-quality X-ray diffraction photographs. Meanwhile, Rosalind Franklin was busy creating some of the world’s best images. James Watson and Francis Crick took up Pauling’s research; Franklin’s results would become the key to their success.


It came about when Wilkins, a friend of Crick’s, showed Franklin’s unpublished research file to Watson while she was on a lecture tour. This action turned out to be the unethical catalyst for the breakthrough which gave the Watson-Crick team the advantage to win the race and gain the credit for the discovery of the structure of DNA. Watson, the thief, had obtained Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ which allowed him to succeed in building the first accurate model of the DNA molecule. Wilkins, the traitor, wanting credit, was named as collaborator. And Crick, the model carpenter, announced in a local pub that they had discovered the secrets of life and its system of reproduction.

Rosalind Franklin, sadly ignorant of the theft, was collegiality pleased that these predatory men had finally realized a breakthrough. They, of course, did not enlighten her as to her vital contribution. The confirmation of the success took some years, and during that time, Rosalind Franklin, due to radiation poisoning as a result of her work, died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 37.

In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for solving the molecular structure of DNA. The men kept silent about the crucial contribution a woman had provided them to win the reward.

James D. Watson, in his self-serving booklet published in 1968, “The Double Helix”, included a whimsical epilogue, finally giving some credit to Rosalind Franklin. He admitted: “…realizing years too late the struggle that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking…” Too late, indeed. The Nobel committee, unfortunately, does not grant prizes posthumously.

So, let us celebrate Rosalind Elsie Franklin’s contributions to the scientific world today, in our hearts.

Formidable Women – Marie Curie 1867-1934


My third selection of ‘formidable women’ is Marie Curie, who had been honoured by none other than François Mitterrand, the 21st and longest-serving President of France (1981 until 1995) with the reburial of her and her husband’s bodies under the dome of the Panthéon, as he said, “in order to finally respect the equality of women and men before the law and in reality” (“pour respecter enfin….l’égalité des femmes et des hommes dans le droit comme dans les faits”).  Mitterrand’s gesture was of particular note not only because Marie Curie was being honoured for helping to increase the prestige of France in the scientific world, but because she was an immigrant, and perhaps most importantly, because she was a woman.

Marie Sklodowska, as she was known before marriage, was born in Warsaw in 1867. Although shy and introverted, she had a brilliant aptitude for study and a thirst for advanced knowledge, but at that time as a woman, the opportunity for higher study was not available in Poland. She worked for several years to save enough money to send her elder sister, Bronya, to the Sorbonne in Paris to study medicine, and Bronya in her turn, once she had earned her degree, contributed to the cost of Marie’s studies. Finally, at the age of 24, Marie left Poland to study mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. “It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty,” she wrote.

Marie was at the top of the list of candidates when she took her degree in physics in 1893 and the next year, came second in mathematics. Her ultimate goal had been to take a teacher’s diploma after three years of exceptional results in physics and mathematics and to return to Poland to teach. However, as fate would have it, she met Pierre Curie, an internationally renowned physicist at the age of 35, devoted to a life of scientific work, particularly in the research of crystals and the magnetic properties of bodies at different temperatures. This meeting would change Marie’s planned direction in her own life.


Marie and Pierre, intellectually compatible, married in 1895. In 1896, Marie received her teaching diploma, at the top of her group. Their daughter Irène was born in September 1897. And at that time, having concluded several investigations into the magnetic properties of steel in the laboratory of the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of which Pierre was the head, she settled on a systematic investigation into the mysterious “uranium rays” as initially presented by Röntgen and Becquerel, as a basis for her doctoral thesis.

After years of heavy, exhausting work, Marie finally presented the results of her work in her doctoral thesis in physics on June 25, 1903, deemed by the assessing committee to represent the greatest scientific contribution ever made in a doctoral thesis. And in that same year, Marie and Pierre shared in the Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize alleviated their financial difficulties, but unfortunately, neither Marie nor Pierre knew then of health threats posed by the materials they had been working with.

On April 19, 1906, Pierre Curie was run over by a horse-drawn wagon in Paris and killed, but even though the demure Marie was devastated, and left to raise two young daughters on her own, she proceeded to realize a number of highly recognized accomplishments, including being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911 for her discovery and isolation of radium which was considered by chemists to be the greatest event in chemistry since the discovery of oxygen, and opened up a completely new field of research: radioactivity.


From there, Marie continued to conduct her research and produce new discoveries in the fields of physics and chemistry, but she also endured, and overcame, the condemnation that comes of gender bias. In the last ten years of her life, Marie had the joy of seeing her eldest daughter and her son-in-law discover the means to achieve artificial radioactivity, but did not hear that they had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Marie Curie died of leukemia on July 4, 1934.

Formidable Women – Bertha Suttner (1843 – 1914)


Today, I would like to pay homage to an Austrian woman, Bertha von Suttner, who was born a Countess and was, at one time referred to as the “Generalissimo of the Peace Movement.” An inquisitive and willful child, she learned to speak several languages, but was forced to earn a living without parental support early in life. One of her jobs was as a governess to the wealthy Suttner family in 1873. Their youngest son fell in love with this governess, seven years his senior, and the two were engaged, but the Suttner parents were opposed to the relationship and Bertha was dismissed.

Then, in 1876, in answer to an advertisement, Bertha was employed by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) as secretary and housekeeper at his residence in Paris. She stayed for only two weeks, but maintained a correspondence with him until his death. She appears to have had a significant influence over this man who never married. At one point, she beseeched Alfred to support her peace activism, to which he responded: “Inform me, convince me, and then I will do something great for the movement.”

We have to give Bertha credit for having had an impact on the contents of Nobel’s will, for it contained provisions for a peace prize among those prizes already provided for. Bertha von Suttner was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her sincere peace activities” in 1905.

Bertha returned to Vienna and her first love, Arthur Gundaccar von Suttner (1850-1902), where they secretly married; Arthur was immediately disinherited. To escape the hostile environment, Bertha and Arthur left Austria for Georgia in Russia, where they lived under difficult conditions. To begin, both earned their living by writing easy read novels and translations. Eventually, Arthur began publishing reports of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and Bertha, writing under a pseudonym, also began a journalistic career writing short stories and essays on the Georgian country and its people.

In 1889, the publication of Bertha Suttner’s novel, “Lay Down Your Arms!”, along with other notable pacifist efforts, caused her to be considered a leading figure in the Austrian peace movement.


Suttner in 1896

After witnessing the foundation of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Bertha wrote an editorial in 1891 calling for the establishment of the Austrian Society of Peace Friends, a pacifist organization of which she became chairwoman. She also founded the German Peace Society the following year. From 1892 to 1899, she continued to gain international recognition as a pacifist as the editor of a journal titled after her book, “Lay Down Your Arms!” During that time, Bertha gathered a list of signatures which she presented to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, urging the establishment of an International Court of Justice, and then took part in the organization of the First Hague Conventions in 1899. In 1911 she became a member of the advisory council of the Carnegie Peace Foundation and, inexhaustible in her peace efforts, continued to advise against international armament until the eve of World War I.

Just a week before war was declared, on June 21, 1914, Bertha succumbed to cancer, another beautiful, brave soul, not to be forgotten!


Formidable Women

nightingale_portrait (2)In the last days before the Internationals Women’s Day of 2015,  I will mention a few women to encourage you to read their fascinating contribution to the advancement of civilization.
I will not go far back, not beyond the 19th Century and name only four formidable ladies, who come to my mind, having made significant changes to the advancement of the whole of humanity. Today, let us remember:

Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910)

Florence Nightingale, the British lady, had a broad education and was appalled by the limitation of opportunity for females to work and to provide services to which women are better than men. She began to visit the poor, but became especially interested in looking after those who were ill. She visited hospitals in London and around the country to investigate possible occupations, in which women could make a difference.

However, nursing was seen as employment that needed neither study nor intelligence; nurses were considered to be little less than charwomen at that time. But with modern warfare using advanced armaments for the Crimean War (1853–1856); more soldier died in field hospitals than on the battlefield.


Nightingale saw that the disciplined and well-organised Nuns made better nurses than employed women… When in March 1854 the Crimean War broke out, Nightingale embarked for the Crimea on 21 October with thirty-eight nurses: ten Roman Catholic Nuns, eight Anglican Sisters of Mercy, six nurses from St. John’s Institute, and fourteen from various hospitals. Nightingale got the official title of, “Superintendent of the Female Nurses in the Hospitals in the East;” but she came to be known generally as: “The Lady-in-Chief.”

While Alfred Nobel had not yet invented his most devastating blasting invention, Dynamite, which was supposed to scare leaders of nations to desist from engaging in warfare, multiplied the carnage of warfare and the need of nursing care, which included civilian victims due to relentless bombings.

During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Nightingale’s advice was sought by the respective governments. Nightingale was involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 her advice was sought by the respective governments. Nightingale was involved in establishing the East London Nursing Society (1868), the Workhouse Nursing Association and National Society for providing Trained Nurses for the Poor (1874) and the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute (1890).

She received the Order of Merit in 1907 and in 1908 she was awarded the Freedom of the City of London. She had already received the German order of the Cross of Merit and the French gold medal of Secours aux Blessés Militaires. On 10 May 1910 she was presented with the badge of honour of the Norwegian Red Cross Society. Nightingale died in South Street, Park Lane, London, on 13 August 1910 at the age of ninety.

Florence Nightingale, a giant of a women, needs to be remembered.