Another Formidable Woman – Barbara McClintock 1902 – 1992

Barbara McClintock, 1902-1992

Today, I would like to recognize another formidable woman, Barbara McClintock, American scientist and cytogeneticist (June 16, 1902 – September 2, 1992). Let us give some thought to her accomplishments, for which she was rewarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. She said in her acceptance speech: “The [Nobel] Prize is such an extraordinary honor. It might seem unfair, however, to reward a person for having so much pleasure over the years, asking the maize plant to solve specific problems and then watching its responses.” McClintock received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927, then proceeded to dedicate her life to the study of maize cytogenetics, becoming a leader in the establishment of that field. She produced the first genetic map for maize and developed the technique for visualizing maize chromosomes. She used microscopic analysis to demonstrate many fundamental genetic ideas, one of which was the mechanism by which chromosomes exchange information, linking regions of the chromosome to physical traits, fundamental in all living organism.

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Barbara was recognized as being one of the best in the field, and was awarded prestigious fellowships as a result of her work. In 1944, she was elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Despite her accomplishments, however, she was faced with opposition when she demonstrated that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. McClintock’s research did not become well understood until the 1960s and more so in the 1970s, as other scientists confirmed the mechanisms of genetic change and genetic regulation that she had originally validated in her maize research.

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I applaud this woman’s genius for breaking through the glass ceiling erected by the male bastions of scientific research. She deserves to have a monument raised in her name for her perseverance, her wisdom, and for her courage to tell the world that the mechanism of genetic regulation and genetic change found in a plant applies to all living beings, including in the human species.

Kudos to you, Barbara McClintock, wherever you are among your angels!

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An Innocent Woman on Death-Row for 22 Years – Debra Milke

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Debra Milke source google images

Debra Milke, née Sadeik, was born in Berlin, Germany, to a U.S. military family. In 1965, the Sadeiks moved back to the U.S., where Debra attended high school and college.
In April 1983, Debra met Mark Milke in a biker bar in Arizona. Debra and Mark were married in December 1984 and the following October, Debra gave birth to her only child, Christopher Conan Milke. By that time, Mark had become an alcoholic and a serious drug addict. One day, during a particularly violent altercation, he threw Debra and the little boy out of the house. They ended up moving into an apartment with Jim Styers, a man Debra knew through her sister. Debra and Mark were divorced in 1988.
Styers, a Vietnam veteran, had some mental issues, suffering from recurring nightmares of the killings in which he had participated, and he had a sleazy friend, a heavy alcoholic, named Roger Scott.
On December 1st, 1989, Debra took the young Christopher to the Metrocenter Mall in Phoenix to see Santa Claus. The next morning, on December 2nd, Styers asked Debra to let him borrow her Toyota for a trip back to the mall, and Christopher asked if he could come for the ride. He was hoping to see Santa again. And this is where the drama began.

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Early in the afternoon on December 2nd, Styers, apparently in distress, called Debra on the phone to tell her that he had lost Christopher in the mall. He asked if the boy had called home to tell her where he is. Hearing her negative response, Styers insisted that she should call the police. Debra went into action, her concern for her only child and the love she could not bear to lose growing.

A police officer came to the home and agreed to stay by the phone in case Christopher should call. Being a clever four-year-old, Christopher had memorised and could dial his mother’s phone number. Needing to be with family, Debra hitched a ride to her father’s residence in Perryville, near Phoenix, where he worked as a guard at the local prison. Debra’s younger sister, Sandy, was still living with him.
When Debra arrived, she was told the Phoenix police wanted to talk to her. The sheriff picked her up and brought her to the police station in Perryville, where she was brought into an examination room. Soon after, a large, heavy man arrived in rolled-up shirtsleeves and a black tie hanging loose around an open collar, a prototype of the “red-necked bully”. Detective Armando Saldate, an ambitious, ruthless go-getter had a personnel record which showed a number of instances of misconduct, including lying under oath, a fact which would not be revealed during the conviction trial to come.
Saldate’s ensuing interrogation was not witnessed by anyone, it was not recorded or overheard, nor was his report signed by Debra Milke. He even went so far as to declare that he threw away his notes shortly after the interview. However, during the later trial, under oath, he stated that Debra had confessed to her role in the plot to murder her son.
Debra Milke offered a vastly different story of the interrogation and denied that she had confessed to any role. Saldate claimed that Roger Scott had told him that Milke had been involved in a plot to kill her son, but neither Scott nor Styers testified in Milke’s trial.

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Prosecutors floated a likely motive, a $5,000 life insurance policy she had taken out on the child, but Milke had obtained the policy as part of the employee benefits package from the insurance agency where she worked. Apart from Saldate’s testimony, no other witnesses or direct evidence linked Debra Milke to the crime. The trial was no more than a he-said/she-said contest between Saldate and Milke.
Debra Milke sat silently, not allowed to speak, not even to cry, numb within her own thoughts. “I had to be quiet. But everything in my head was screaming: Liar, you’re a goddamned liar! He was so overbearing, so unbelievably arrogant. And he was allowed to describe in detail all the things I had supposedly confessed to him.”
Multiple opportunities were missed to challenge the presented “evidence” by Debra’s inept court-appointed defence lawyer, who counselled Debra not to cry out or to challenge, but to try to maintain a calm, collected demeanor. No doubt, to the judge and jury, preconditioned by the graphic delivery of Saldate’s concocted findings, the silent acceptance of the accused appeared to be the expression of a guilty person.
In October 1990, Debra Milke was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, child abuse, and first-degree murder. On January 18, 1991, she was sentenced to death.

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Styers and Scott were charged and tried separately. Both were convicted of first degree murder and also sentenced to death.
Shortly after Christmas in 1997, Debra received a notification that her execution date had been officially set for the 29th of January, 1998. With it, the Arizona justice system issued its final declaration of judgment without any further possible appeal. However, Debra’s lawyer made a last-ditch effort to prevent the lethal injection and filed a writ of habeas corpus. The answer to this last question could save Debra’s life – were her human rights violated in the trial?
Over the course of years and two failed appeals, Debra Milke remained convinced that she would be free one day, that the truth of her innocence would be recognised. She educated herself about the American justice system by reading the daily Arizona Republic and, in that paper, found Mike Kimerer, a successful defense attorney. Debra wrote to her mother, asking her to contact the lawyer, to ask him to take her case. Kimerer accepted and worked on it for 15 years.

On March 23, 2015, after 22 years on death row, Milke was exonerated. Judge Rosa Mroz threw out her conviction and dismissed her case, ruling that she had not received a fair trial. It held that Milke’s rights had been violated by the failure to turn over Saldate’s personnel file to the defense. That file included eight cases where confessions, indictments or convictions had been thrown out because detective Armando Saldate had either lied under oath or violated the suspects’ rights during interrogations.

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Throughout this tenacious fight for human rights, had a new legal ruling been created whereby an American lawyer is forced to submit all evidence in court, including evidence which would benefit the defendant, Debra Milke’s case would have been dismissed long ago. In my mind, there is still a fundamental problem with the U.S. criminal justice system, which is due to an ingrained culture that has not evolved in its democratic governing principles, unlike European states that have advanced from the barbarism of the Middle Ages to a more liberal but orderly society, and where the death penalty has been eliminated without effecting an increase in crime.
As reported in an article titled “The American Nightmare” in the German Magazine DER SPIEGEL, Issue Nr. 14/4.4.2015, page 85: “In no other country in the world are there so many citizens in prison awaiting to be executed than in the United States of America. Close to 3,000 inmates are waiting to be poisoned, gassed, hanged, or to be electrocuted in an electric chair, or otherwise just shot.”
On the other hand, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre, since 1973, 151 inmates have been released from death row and given their freedom as a result of an appeals process, where errors of fact or the violation of citizens’ rights have been made in judicial proceedings. It is ludicrous that the murder of a child could be committed by the mother simply for the sake of cashing in a negligible life insurance policy. It takes a criminal mind to construe such a motive, and a stupid mind to insufficiently scrutinize such a preposterous suggestion.

It is only possible to cultivate and enlighten the minds of the people of that great country by providing equality in access to higher education, and providing equal opportunities, particularly to women who have the good sense to study hard and who have the potential to become excellent lawyers, negotiators for peace, and world leaders.

Debra Milke listens to two windchimes at sunrise, one for her mother and one for Christopher.

Debra Milke listens to two windchimes at sunrise, one for her mother and one for Christopher.

The Semantics of Genocide – April 24, 2015 – 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

The eternal flame at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan, Ar

The eternal flame at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan

The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines ‘genocide’ as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group”, such as the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews in the 1940s. Today, however, we must commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which was the inspiration for the coining of the very word ‘genocide’ by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 or 1944.
Despite Obama’s campaign promise in 2008, that as President he would “recognize the Armenian Genocide”, the White House issued a carefully worded statement at a high-level administration meeting with Armenian groups that avoided using the term ‘genocide’, obviously for political reasons, for fear of offending their Turkish ally. On the other hand, Pope Francis used the word ‘genocide’ to refer to the mass killings of Armenians by the Turks without hesitation or retraction.
In my mind, ‘genocide’ is a specific and considered war effort to exterminate a declared enemy. An act is genocidal when it is carried out not only to obliterate the fighting force of a nation, but to indiscriminately include the killing of women and children. Women and children are essential for the survival and future of a nation and, therefore, require special attention and protection, attention and protection which the criminal and barbaric mind dismisses.

Genoarmenia

Genoarmenia

During World War II, the mass destructions of the cities of Coventry in England and Dresden in Germany, and the USA’s atomic bombings on Japan, to call a spade a spade, were genocidal acts. The murder of so many women and children in that war cannot be justified with a claimed goal of shortening the conflict or minimizing casualties. In plain truth, it was simple, inhuman carnage. And in the Iraq war, targeted city bombings caused the deaths of countless women and children, deaths that were labelled ‘collateral damage’, a nice, sanitized term, an excuse for unintentional but unavoidable acts of war.
Let us not be deceived by politically correct terminology, by semantics. The words used to describe calculated acts of warfare which include the slaughter of women and children cannot gloss over the face that they are a disgrace to humanity, and whether they are committed intentionally or carelessly, they are pointedly ‘genocidal’.
It all comes down to the persistent sexist attitude of men, considering women as second-class citizens. Instead of granting women, not only equal status in all facets of everyday life, but a superior status in politics to curb the limited male ability to find peaceful solutions, men engage in macho altercations which lead to wars, wars which women in power could and would have avoided. Let men become the champions and guardians of women, at home as well as in enemy camps. We desperately need their enlightenment to turn the hearts of belligerent men to the singular, necessary goal of achieving universal peace, peace which the United Nations has so far, dismally, failed to achieve.

Photos: Goggle images.

Formidable Women – Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

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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)

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.