“Alarmingly Brilliant”

The brilliant and pioneering Rosalind Franklin is perhaps history’s best-known symbol of the bias against women in science. It is widely believed that she deserved to share credit for solving one of nature’s most puzzling mysteries: the structure of the DNA molecule, the famous double helix. Francis Crick and James Watson “officially” discovered the double helix with the publication of an article in Nature in 1953. The two men later went on to win the Nobel Prize and were among the most acclaimed names of the 20th century while, until fairly recently, Rosalind Franklin was all but unknown to the general public.

Picture 51

The controversy centers on the now famous Picture 51, an x-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by Rosalind. The image was informally shown to Watson and Crick by Rosalind’s colleagues and the two men quickly realized that it supported their theory that DNA was in the shape of a double helix. Rosalind had not yet published the photo and, by all rights, Watson and Crick should not have been allowed to see it. Although she later became close friends with Crick, Rosalind apparently never knew that her X-ray image had played an essential role in determining the structure of DNA and her vital contribution was never acknowledged.

Was Gender Really an Issue?

Was she discriminated against because she was a woman? Given that all science is based on the research of other scientists, are there grounds for the accusation that her cutting- edge experimental data was used behind her back to further the careers of men scientists? In the opinion of Brenda Maddox, the author of the well-researched biography, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.

Fiercely Independent

Without in any way justifying the unfairness, Ms. Maddox writes straightforwardly about Rosalind’s fiercely independent personality. In an ideal world, credit is given where credit is due. In the real world, who is rewarded and who is ignored is often due to adeptness at office politics, cronyism and well-directed flattery. All of which Rosalind refused to countenance. She found such behavior distasteful and, more importantly, it would seem she felt she did not need to bother with it. By the time she turned her attention to DNA, her reputation as one of the leading researchers in the field of X-ray crystallography was well-established internationally. Like all scientists everywhere and in every epoch, she had to battle with an array of institutions and government agencies to obtain resources and financing, but due to her professional renown and enormous determination her requests were generally granted. She herself acknowledged that the equipment made available to her was among the best in Britain.

A Full Life Outside the Lab

Ms. Maddox’s book also gives the impression that another reason Rosalind thought it unnecessary to put on any sort of false face in the lab was her family background. The prosperous Franklins were firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of then highly-stratified British society and greatly respected for their many hands-on philanthropic endeavors. Their only daughter benefited from the social assurance that comes with family position and the intellectual assurance that comes from a phenomenally gifted mind—her aunt described her as “alarmingly brilliant” at the age of three—brought to its highest potential by top-quality schooling. A woman with a many-faceted personality, she was known for her elegance and dress sense as well as her love of mountain-climbing and “roughing it,” preferring hiking with a back-pack to touring by car.

Fascinated by art, architecture and music, well-read, well-traveled and a connoisseur of French food and wine, she regularly hosted dinners where, by all accounts, the conversation sparkled and Rosalind’s witty sense of humor was much in evidence. Tellingly, although her family could have easily afforded seamstresses and catering, her stylish frocks and elaborate meals were often made by her own hands. A demanding perfectionist who wanted things her way, she brought the same “if you want it done right do it yourself” credo to both science and life. With her work-hard-play-hard attitude, it isn’t surprising that she had neither the time nor the inclination for “making nice” to advance her career.

The Lost Prize that Truly Mattered

For Rosalind was only interested in advancing her career inasmuch as her career advanced science. Competition is said to be one of the great motivators of scientists and Rosalind was a scientist par excellence. But her stiffest competition was herself. She appears to have taken her genius for granted and had nothing to prove to anyone but Rosalind Franklin. Like her father, she believed that those gifted with talent, intelligence or resources had a supreme duty to work toward improving society. That ideal, rather than outdoing other scientists or winning prizes, is what inspired her research.

Indeed one can only speculate how much more she could have contributed to creating a better world had her life been longer. Tragically, Rosalind was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956 and, unsurprisingly, this driven woman continued to work in her lab and publish papers until her illness progressed to the final and most painful stages. She died in 1958 at the age of 37. As Ms. Maddox puts it, “Rosalind was cheated of the only thing she really wanted: the chance to complete her work. The lost prize was life.” 

WATCH- SciShow's Great Minds: Rosalind Franklin

For Women in Science

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