Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin looking under a microscope Retrieved from

  Rosalind Franklin

The first time that I had ever become aware of any prejudices in the scientific field was during my eleventh grade biology class. You don’t usually think about these issues existing in the realm of science when you are a teenager as most classes are concerned with teaching facts surrounding physiology, photosynthesis… you get the picture. However, during this particular biology class, we were covering the topic of DNA, and we had just learnt about the double helix structure discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick. After reading my textbook thoroughly (because I actually liked, and still do like, reading science textbooks), I had learnt that the story behind the discovery of DNA was more complex than I had thought. This double helix structure, made up of nitrogenous bases, and framed by a phosphate and sugar backbone, would not have been discovered if it were not for the previous research conducted by Rosalind Franklin. She had used X-ray diffraction to take photographs of DNA in her studies.

Watson (left) and Crick (right) with their double helix structure of DNA Retrieved from Clare College

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick (right) with their double helix structure of DNA

Maurice Wilkins, a peer of Franklin’s whom performed DNA research during the same time, took and sent one of her photographs, named Photo 51, to Watson and Crick. Wilkins did not ask for her permission, and Franklin was completely unaware of that picture being taken from her. Without this photograph, Watson and Crick’s medical breakthrough might have never occurred. To make matters even more frustrating, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were rewarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for this discovery. Franklin was not mentioned in this award because she had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 and Nobel Prizes are not given to people posthumously. This all seems like terrible timing, however many still debate whether she would have still received the award if she had lived at that time.

Maurice Wilkins Retrieved from Nobelprize.org

Maurice Wilkins

Once I read this information in my textbook (and performing some independent research), I became really frustrated for Franklin. I understand today that she has endless amounts of information written about her as people now know the truth behind the discovery, however this further demonstrates the sexism displayed throughout history. Even throughout her earlier life, she had her father not believing in women furthering their education, as well as being treated as an assistant by Wilkins. The complete lack of respect against women is most likely what led Wilkins to taking one of her photographs. Although I understand that Watson and Crick’s DNA structure was a wonderful contribution to science, I sometimes wonder if the ends truly justify the means.