Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin looking under a microscope Retrieved from

Rosalind Franklin looking under a microscope

The first time that I had ever become aware of any prejudices in the field of science, specifically sexism, was during my eleventh grade biology class. You never really think about these issues existing in science when you are a teenager for two main reasons. First off, a lot of students I knew in high school were not interested or did not fully understand science, and secondly, we are usually told facts, and not opinions during class time. However, this particular week in my 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 not as plain and simple as 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 done by Rosalind Franklin. She had used X-ray diffraction, a technique that uses X-rays beams that diffract against substances, in her case DNA, which create a certain pattern. She had taken many X-ray photographs of the 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, even to her death. 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 after they have died. 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 this woman. I understand today that she has endless amounts of information written about her and now people know the truth behind the discovery, however the past events demonstrated a lot of sexism. There were other cases of sexism shown throughout Franklin’s life. As Franklin worked alongside Wilkins, he did not see her as an equal, and he had even first thought she was his assistant, instead of leading her own research. She also had to fight against sexism at an earlier age because her father did not believe in women furthering their education. In the end, what concerns me the most, is the complete lack of respect that Wilkins must have had towards Franklin which led to him taking one of her photographs. He clearly did not seem to respect any aspect of Franklin (her intelligence, her work, etc.) since he thought he could easily take her work without her knowing. One of the biggest cruelties that someone can do to a colleague of theirs with so much intelligence and drive is to not respect the ownership of their work. I understand that Watson and Crick’s DNA structure was a wonderful contribution to science, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves if our ends truly justify our means.



All Quiet on the Wench Front. (n.d.). Rosalind Franklin and the un-noble prize. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://allquietonthewenchfront.com/2013/07/20/rosalind-franklin-and-the-un-nobel-prize/

Biography.com. (2015). Rosalind Franlkin. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/rosalind-franklin-9301344#scientific-discoveries-and-credit-controversy

Clare College. (2012). James Watson to speak at 25th hay festival [Photograph]. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://www.clarealumni.com/s/845/1col.aspx?sid=845&gid=1&pgid=252&cid=2272&ecid=2272&crid=0&calpgid=15&calcid=778

Lee, J. J. (2013). 6 women scientists who were snubbed due to sexism. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/

Nobel Media. (2014). Maurice Wilkins – biographical [Photograph]. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1962/wilkins-bio.html

Nobel Media. (2014). The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1962/

San Diego Supercomputer Centre. (1997). Rosalind Elsie Franklin. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from https://www.sdsc.edu/ScienceWomen/franklin.html

The Primate Diaries. (2009). Today in history: Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of DNA [Photograph]. Retrieved January 1, 2015, from http://scienceblogs.com/primatediaries/2009/07/25/today-in-history-rosalind-fran/