Why we should remember Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering scientific career
Patricia Fara considers the importance of a pioneering scientist whose work was central to scientific understanding of DNA
On 25 July 1920, Britain’s most famous female scientist, Rosalind Franklin, was born. Just 37 years old when she died, Franklin carried out pioneering research into viruses and made crucial contributions to gas masks – a kind of wartime PPE. But she is best known for a relatively brief period during which she investigated DNA, the double helix molecule carrying our genetic code. The controversies surrounding her misogynistic treatment by US scientist James Watson have overshadowed her other achievements, and Franklin has become mythologised as the helpless victim of male prejudice.
Franklin’s difficulties began in 1950, when she returned to England after three successful years in a Parisian laboratory, where she became an expert in X-ray crystallography – a sophisticated method for exploring how atoms are arranged inside large molecules. Accepting the offer of a research fellowship at King’s College London, she was assigned to work on DNA – but so too was Maurice Wilkins. Unfortunately, their boss neglected to clarify the official relationship between them, a failure that led to great bitterness and rivalry.
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Determined to escape the hostile environment at King’s, Franklin secured a prestigious position elsewhere, but conscientiously worked out her contract. She discovered that DNA molecules can take two different forms, which she labelled A and B. While Wilkins took over B, she focused on the more problematic ‘A’ variety. Working under her direction, her assistant Ray Gosling took a series of X-ray photos, including the crucial number 51. Technically tricky to obtain, it looks like a simple cross but reveals a hidden spiral.
Controversies surrounding Franklin’s misogynistic treatment have overshadowed her achievement
Unknown to Franklin, Wilkins showed photograph 51 to Watson, who immediately grasped its significance. Dashing back to Cambridge, he used her image to construct a double helix model with his collaborator Francis Crick. Their joint paper in Nature has achieved iconic status, but they supplied no supporting experimental evidence beyond photograph 51.
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Franklin died in 1958, just four years before a Nobel Prize was jointly awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins. Then, in 1968, accusations of unethical behaviour proliferated when Watson published his romanticised autobiographical account, The Double Helix. Critics deplored his portrayal of science as a competitive race rather than a cooperative venture, but they were even more antagonised by his denigration of Franklin – Rosy, as he patronisingly called her – as a freakish, unattractive woman. His insulting condescension converted her into a worldwide cause celebre – but for reasons that she would have abhorred.
Patricia Fara is an emeritus fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (OUP, 2018)