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.

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