Women in science: rosalind franklin and the discovery of dna

Visiting the Institut Curie in Paris recently got me thinking about the distinct lack of famous female Nobel Prize winners in science (Marie Curie excepted).

The world rightly celebrated the incredible life and achievements of Stephen Hawking when he died last month.

Yet the recent 60th anniversary of another brilliant scientist who also didn’t win a Nobel Prize but who happened to be a woman passed pretty much unnoticed.

Rosalind Franklin died on April 16, 1958, at the tender age of 37, but packed at least two lifetime’s worth of high quality science into her career. In the years since her death, she has won recognition among scientists for her research on the molecular structure of coal, viruses and, most notably, DNA. But wider fame has remained elusive.

Her X-ray diffraction images of DNA enabled the University of Cambridge’s Francis Crick and James Watson to identify the molecule’s double helix structure, which they wrote about in a paper published 65 years ago on April 25, 1953. Yet only Crick, Watson and Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for the discovery.

Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of DNAA rigorous and careful experimentalist. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Hawking never received a Nobel Prize primarily because his seminal discovery in 1974 that black holes can emit radiation was entirely theoretical, and the Nobel Committee tends to favour experimentalists over theorists.

In contrast, Franklin’s work could never be accused of lacking experimental rigour. Indeed, her insistence on robust and carefully collected data at the expense of building scientific models perhaps undermined her chances of receiving the title of discoverer of “the secret of life”.

However, the Nobel Committee chose to honour Crick and Watson for their theoretical model.

What ultimately disqualified her from receiving the Nobel was her death four years earlier, as Nobels can only go to people who are alive to collect them. But I believe that even if Franklin had lived, the Nobel Committee would still have given the prize to Crick, Watson and Wilkins.

For a start, history was against her. The last woman scientist to receive a Nobel before this point had been Gerty Cori in 1947 and she was only the third, following Curie and her daughter Irene.

Though more women scientists did win the prize later on in the 1960s, the prevailing mood of the day still discriminated against women.

Even in 1974, the Northern Irish scientist who discovered radio pulsars, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, was overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Physics in favour of her male supervisor.

Franklin experienced the sexism of science firsthand. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1941 when women were still not recognised as full members of the university or entitled to a degree award. She also had to protest against lower pay compared to her male colleagues and her lack of promotion even when she was publishing work in the top scientific journals.

Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of DNAPhoto Credit: Wikipedia

The power politics of professional rivalries and alliances were also in play. The key image that revealed the double helix structure of DNA, known as “Photograph 51”, was taken by Franklin and her PhD student Raymond Gosling at King’s College London in May 1952.

Her King’s colleague Maurice Wilkins then showed this iconic image to Watson at Cambridge without Franklin’s knowledge or consent. Watson and Crick also gained access to a King’s report that Franklin had helped prepare, which contained extra experimental information that Crick crucially recognised as the final piece of the puzzle.

The fact that Franklin moved from King’s to the less well regarded Birkbeck College in 1953 probably didn’t help her cause either.

Despite all this, I have no doubt that if Franklin had lived she would eventually have become the second British woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1982 for her research on viruses and protein-nucleic crystal structures. In her absence, the prize for chemistry went to Aaron Klug, her mentee who did so much to restore her reputation in the years after her death.

Aside from her work on DNA, Franklin demonstrated that the related molecule RNA was shaped in a single strand rather than a double helix.

She also proved through her elegant X-ray crystallography that the proteins of the tobacco mosaic virus formed a spiral hollow tube with RNA wrapped around it. Ironically, this confirmed the spiral tube hypothesis that James Watson had put forward in the early 1950s.

This elegant work was a forerunner to research on the polio virus, which Klug completed after her death and published in her memory.

Franklin herself seemed to see this work as her real success. The inscription she composed for her gravestone in Willesden Cemetery in London says: “Her Research and Discoveries on Viruses Remain of Lasting Benefit to Mankind.”

Mark Lawler, Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics, Queen’s University Belfast.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Women in Science: Remembering Rosalind Franklin

In science, we are always trying to make research more inclusive rather than exclusive. The involvement of women in the advancement of science cannot be understated.

Women comprise slightly more than 50 percent of the population — exclusion means we are losing bright scientific minds with ideas and imaginations that could cure disease, inspire young scientists, and breathe fresh air into a challenging atmosphere that cannot afford to grow stagnant.

How can we attract and retain female and minority scientists? By providing examples of such scientists we reinforce the idea that a career in science is attainable to all backgrounds, regardless of race, sex, or religion. It is much easier to relate to someone with similar personal experiences, and seeing a reflection of oneself in a successful scientist can be a powerful image.

In the JAX blog,  we are highlighting the achievements of women geneticists, celebrating not only their contributions to science but also remembering their struggles navigating what was, for many of them, a non-traditional career.

We begin with Rosalind Franklin, whose story is famous within the scientific community, but is less well-known among the general public.

She is an inspiration to many female scientists, myself included, and I am honored to write about her for the JAX blog.

Photo courtesy Getty Images

Rosalind Franklin and the double helix

If you have heard of Rosalind Franklin, you have probably heard it in connection with James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and/or Medicine for their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

I first read about Rosalind Franklin in The Double Helix, James Watson’s recollection of the events leading to their groundbreaking discovery.

I was about 13 at the time, and I became fascinated with Rosalind Franklin: her personality and research, as well as her part in the story of The Double Helix.

But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was the vast amount of work that Rosalind Franklin accomplished in her short time as an independent scientist, or the journey that she had taken to arrive in her position.

I’m limited in the amount I can write here, as I could literally write an entire dissertation gushing about Franklin.

For more history, I refer readers to Barbara Maddox’s excellent biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, which I relied on heavily for the information presented herein.

She was the epitome of an evidence-based scientist and was not satisfied until the techniques and images were perfected.

Although the Nobel Prize was awarded in the 1960s, Franklin’s story began much earlier, when she arrived at King’s College in 1951.

Franklin was hired because of her expertise in X-ray crystallography, a technique that uses X-ray beams to analyze the 3-D structure of crystallized molecules.

In X-ray crystallography, X-ray beams are directed onto highly purified crystalline molecules, and as the light hits the molecules, it reflects and creates a diffraction pattern.

This diffraction pattern is collected and developed on X-ray plates, and the patterns reveal the molecular architecture of the interrogated materials. Franklin was among the best X-ray crystallographers of her time, and J.T. Randall wanted her to apply these techniques to the structure of DNA.

In hiring Franklin, Randall made an enormous oversight.

Maurice Wilkins, a senior member of the Randall lab, had actually been working on the structure of DNA for several years, and he was very invested in continuing his research.

In addition, Randall did not include Wilkins in the discussion of how the DNA work was to be allocated, and as a result, Wilkins and Franklin both had stakes to the ownership of this project.

This communication error underlies what Barbara Maddox has called “one of the great personal quarrels in the history of science.” Wilkins began analysis of Franklin’s data without her knowledge or approval, and she began to feel paranoid that others were trying to control her work.

Franklin was known to be somewhat confrontational, and her personality did not interact well with that of Wilkins, who was reticent and sensitive to Franklin’s sometimes-harsh statements.

Tensions were high at King’s College, and Wilkins was growing frustrated with Franklin’s hostility to his involvement in the DNA project.

Rosalind Franklin and the damage of gender harassment

Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Rosalind Franklin, one of the most consequential scientists of the 20th century—indeed, of the entire history of biology—and not just because her 98th birthday would have been last week.

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She’s been on my mind since the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued its June report detailing the prevalence of sexual harassment in university science.

Franklin was the victim of one of the most well-known incidents of the particular kind of scientific disrespect that the report calls “gender harassment.”

Taken for Granted is a monthly column about training and career issues from scientific workforce expert Beryl Lieff Benderly.

Gender harassment—defined in the report as disrespecting, demeaning, and deprecating women and their work, abilities, and accomplishments, simply because they are women—has gotten less attention in the report’s aftermath than other forms of sexual harassment, such as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention.

The report emphasizes, however, that gender harassment is by far the most prevalent form of sexual harassment in academic science, as our colleague Meredith Wadman highlighted. Beyond that, sexual harassment in any form “is not just damaging to targets and bystanders, but also to the integrity of science,” the report states.

Franklin’s story illustrates how gender harassment corrodes integrity.

The Matilda Effect

Franklin, one of the very few women doing world-class research in the 1950s, is among history’s most prominent subjects of what historian of science Margaret Rossiter terms the “Matilda Effect”: the practice of ascribing women’s accomplishments to men. An expert in x-ray crystallography, Franklin led the team that created what has been called “arguably the most important photo ever taken,” the celebrated Photo 51, which revealed the helical structure of DNA.

When the structure was published in 1953, however, Franklin—a research associate at King’s College London at the time—was not among the authors.

Her crucial contribution was mentioned cursorily at the end of the article as having “stimulated” the authors, James Watson and Francis Crick, who were both researchers at the University of Cambridge—and who, with their paper, gained priority as discoverers. 

How did this happen? Shortly after Franklin started at King’s College in 1950, her relationship with another King’s College researcher, Maurice Wilkins, soured. At this remove, and without Franklin’s testimony, we can’t reconstruct how these strong personalities interacted. But we do know that Wilkins, without Franklin’s knowledge or permission, showed Photo 51 to Watson.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the structure of DNA.

Franklin had died 4 years earlier at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer—possibly related to x-ray exposure, some have suggested—and thus was ineligible for science’s highest honor.

We can’t know whether she would have been considered for the prize had she lived. But we do know that her contribution to the discovery received little attention for years.

Comments from Watson and Crick reveal the gender harassment that Franklin endured in the lab.

Throughout The Double Helix, Watson’s famous 1968 book recounting the race to the famous structure, Watson condescendingly refers to Franklin as “Rosy,” a nickname never used to her face.

“There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents,” he writes, though neglecting to critique his male colleagues’ cosmetic or sartorial choices.

He adds that her “belligerent moods” interfered with Wilkins’ ability to “maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.” For that reason, “[c]learly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.

… The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab.

” In the 1993 book Nobel Prize Women in Science, Crick was quoted as saying, “I'm afraid we always used to adopt—let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

Did this general air of disrespect rooted in gender play a role in the men’s decision to use the product of Franklin’s work without permission? Some argue that they would have treated a male researcher just as cavalierly. Regardless, it appears obvious that they did not view Franklin as a serious scientific colleague.

A 2017 NASEM report defines six core values of research: accountability, stewardship, fairness, objectivity, honesty, and openness. According to the June report, sexual harassment undermines at least the first three. This is no small matter. As a 2002 study on the topic states, research integrity “is essential for maintaining scientific excellence and keeping the public’s trust.”

Changing times?

“For science to thrive, there must be the freedom to fail,” science writer Philip Ball wrote in a 2015 review of Photograph 51, a play about Franklin and the race to determine the structure of DNA. The male scientists “felt confident enough to foul up.” They “committed howlers in trying to get the prize” but continued to put forward their ideas until the right answer emerged. 

Franklin, however, was notably cautious about publishing until her results were more complete. “In Franklin's time,” Ball writes, “it is not surprising that a female scientist would think that she could ill afford th[e] luxury” of being seen to make mistakes because she was already subject to unfair scrutiny and criticism.

Are things so different in our time? In some ways, of course, female scientists have made substantial progress. Women now hold a wide range of significant scientific positions, including some of the most powerful and prestigious.

The event launching the harassment report opened, for example, with a greeting from National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt, previously the editor-in-chief of Science and director of the United States Geological Survey, and the first woman to hold any of the three posts. Women now receive more than half the Ph.D.s awarded in a number of biological fields in the United States. Institutions such as Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois, and the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the United Kingdom now honor Franklin’s work.

But even so, as the harassment report shows, gender harassment continues to thrive, adversely affecting both individual researchers and the scientific enterprise as a whole.

It is not hard to imagine that the disrespect still rampant, and the insecurity it can create, could discourage today’s brilliant women from taking the risk of putting forward offbeat, controversial, or not yet totally proven ideas. In fact, we noted this tendency just a few months ago.

Such reluctance not only robs individual researchers of deserved recognition and collaboration, but also robs science of potentially significant insights and advances.  

“Academic institutions should consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research,” the harassment report states. That’s because, quite simply, the risk of impairing the search for truth that it poses can be just as great.

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*Correction 8 August, 10:30 a.m.: This piece originally stated that Franklin was ineligible for the 1962 Nobel Prize because they cannot be awarded posthumously. That is the case today, but at the time the rules were slightly different. Prior to 1974, individuals could not be nominated posthumously.

The Scientist Who First Showed Us The Double Helix: A Personal Look At Rosalind Franklin

The woman scientist whose work formed a basis for the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA has not … [+] been appreciated until recently. And Rosalind Franklin's legend may not do justice to the compassionate, passionate scientist who brought the world its first true visions of the makeup of all life.

US National Library of Science

Recent years have seen landmark advances for women in science. The year 2009 saw three women receive Nobel prizes in the sciences: Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol W. Griede, and Ada E. Yonath.

In 2018, Donna Strickland became the third female in history to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, and synthetic biology’s own Frances Arnold became the fifth female ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Recent research from the National Science Foundation indicates that more women than men are receiving undergraduate degrees in science and engineering these days. 

Still, enormous disparities persist. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Particularly regarding the Nobel, only 3% of the science Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics have been awarded to women. 

One of the most complicated cases of equity and the Nobel Prize is that of Rosalind Franklin. An English chemist, Franklin developed the methods that led to the capture of Photo 51 — the famed x-ray crystallography photo that directly led James Watson and Francis Crick to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

But how Watson and Crick came to receive Franklin’s photography is problematic — they obtained it without her knowledge from Maurice Wilkins, a researcher at the same lab.

Wilkins and Franklin had a challenging relationship: as head of the lab, Wilkins never communicated to Franklin that she was not working under him and that the two were independent researchers.

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Although Franklin’s work was essential to Watson and Crick’s discovery, she was not appropriately credited in initial publications about the structure. Only in Watson’s book, published years later in 1968, was the first mention of her contribution.

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  Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962 for “their” work; Franklin died at the much-too-young age of thirty-seven due to ovarian cancer in 1958, just four years before the Nobel was awarded.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences does not confer the Nobel posthumously, but the Nobel Museum in Stockholm does note that she was not awarded her due credit. 

Rosalind Franklin: Biography & Discovery of DNA Structure

Many people recall that the structure of the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix.

Some may even recall the names of the scientists who won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for modeling the structure of the molecule, and explaining how the shape lends itself to replication.

James Watson and Francis Crick shared the Nobel Prize with Maurice Wilkins, but many people feel that much of the credit for this world-shaking achievement should rightfully go to someone who was absent from that stage, a woman named Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin was born July 25, 1920, and grew up in a well-known Jewish family in pre-World War II London, and was known in the family for being very clever and outspoken. Her parents sent her to St.

Paul’s Girls’ School, a private school known for rigorous academics, including physics and chemistry.

In an interview for PBS’ NOVA television episode titled “The Secret of Photo 51,” two of her friends recalled memories of Franklin’s school days.

“She was best in science, best at maths, best in everything. She expected that if she undertook to do something, she would be in charge of it.” By the age of 15, over objections from her father, who thought she should go into social work; Franklin decided to become a scientist.

Franklin graduated from Newnham College at Cambridge in 1938 and took a job with the British Coal Utilization Research Association.

She was determined to make a contribution to the war effort, and published several papers on the structures and uses of coal and graphite. Her work was used in development of the gas masks that helped keep British soldiers safer.

Her work earned her a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry awarded by Cambridge University in 1945.

In 1947, Franklin moved to Paris to take up a job at the Laboratoire Central working with Jacques Mering on perfecting the science of X-ray chromatography. By all accounts, she was very happy in Paris, easily earning the respect of her colleagues.

She was known to enjoy doing the meticulous mathematical equations necessary to interpret data about atomic structure that was being revealed by the X-ray techniques.

However, in 1951, she reluctantly decided it was necessary to move back to London to advance her scientific career.

Skirting a leftover bomb crater to enter the lab at King’s College in London, Franklin found she was expected to work with antiquated equipment in the basement of the building. She took charge of the lab with her customary efficiency, directing the graduate student, Raymond Gosling, in making needed refinements to the X-ray equipment.

She was annoyed when she discovered that she was expected to interrupt her work and leave the building for lunch every day. Women were not allowed in the College cafeteria. Nevertheless, she and Gosling were making progress in studying DNA when Maurice Wilkins, another senior scientist, returned from his vacation.

Wilkins was upset to learn that the female “assistant,” who he had expected would be working for him, was instead a formidable researcher in her own right.

In this tense atmosphere, Franklin continued working to refine her X-ray images, using finer DNA fibers and arranging them differently for her chromatography, but she began to fear she had made a mistake in leaving Paris.

Wilkins, also uncomfortable, began to spend more time at nearby Cavendish Laboratory with his friend Francis Crick. Crick and his partner, James Watson, were working on a model-based approach to trying to discover the structure of the DNA molecule.

Women in science – Rosalind Franklin’s legacy

 Studying DNA may be in my genes, literally. At the age of 14, I became fascinated by a book on the genetic revolution, and at the same time discovered that Rosalind Franklin was a distant relative through my maternal great-grandmother. I was hooked.

Following eight years of graduate and post-graduate study in Genetics, I became a Research Associate in Genetics at King’s College London (KCL) where, 56 years earlier, Rosalind Franklin, also in her early 30’s and also a Research Associate, produced her now famous X-ray diffraction images of DNA.

The images, and in particular ‘photograph 51’, were shown to James Watson, and are now known to have been key in Watson and Crick’s breakthrough model of DNA in 1953 which was to change forever our knowledge of genetics and inheritance.

Rosalind Franklin

The author of the article and distant relative of Rosalind Franklin, Juliette Harris

Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, just four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for elucidating the three-dimensional molecular structure of DNA. It will never be known for sure whether, had she lived, she would have shared the prize, since the prize is not awarded posthumously.

Photograph 51

Her name is currently in the limelight, as Nicole Kidman recently starred as Rosalind Franklin in the West End play “Photograph 51”.

A number of references during to the play allude to the dPhotograph 51ifficulty she had in being a female scientist at the time, including being addressed repeatedly by her colleagues as “Ms Franklin” instead of “Dr..

” Numerous books and articles have accused the scientific establishment of not giving Rosalind Franklin the recognition she deserved for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and have cited her as an example of sexism and discrimination of women in science.

In contrast, close family members of Rosalind Franklin have recently said that “she would have been astonished to be cast as a feminist icon because she never considered herself a victim of sexism.” Her family wish her to be remembered as she was – a talented scientist who loved her work.

However, there is no doubt that there are women who have experienced sexism and obstruction to career progression in academia, with only 22% at professorial level being women (Higher Education Statistics Agency).

In response, many universities, KCL among them, are showing greater commitment to advancing the careers of women academics and researchers in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Athena SWAN is a Charter, established in 2005, which recognises excellence in an institution’s commitment to gender equality.

KCL has been a member of the Athena SWAN Charter since 2007, gained its Bronze award in 2008 and is now actively working towards its silver award, which shows the strength of its commitment to women in STEMM.

I joined KCL in the same year as it became a member of the Athena Swan Charter and have worked with colleagues, including the female head of the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, Professor Gillian Bates, to ensure a strong career development pathway for women.

We are proud that in our Division alone, the number of women at professorial levels is 35%, higher than the sector average of 22%.

Although academic institutions still have some way to go, it is clear that the advancement of women in science has never been so high on the agenda.

“A lack of leading female scientists means a lack of role models”

Natalie Matosin from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich talks about the biochemist Rosalind Franklin

While there are more female researchers today than in previous decades, their rising number is still not reflected in the number of women leading departments or research projects, says Natalie Matosin. In Rosalind Franklin, she particularly admires here persistence.

Her name is usually mentioned in connection with that of two others: Francis Crick and James Watson.

Rosalind Franklin is often by-passed, overlooked. In his book Double Helix, James Watson dismissively referred to her as “Rosy”.

The two men, Francis Crick and James Watson, soared above her: in 1962, four years after Franklin's premature death at the age of 37, Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize along with Maurice Wilkins for their work on the molecular structure of DNA.

Though Franklin had contributed significantly to the discovery, as the only women involved, her work was not acknowledged.

By the time she took the famous Photo 51, an image of DNA that guided Francis Crick and James Watson’s research, Franklin was already a renowned scientist.

She had refined X-ray crystallography so precisely that she was able to capture the sharp image of life’s blueprint.

Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s colleague at King’s College London, showed the image and other unpublished files to James Watson and Francis Crick – without her knowledge.

Even if asked what her most important discovery was, Rosalind Franklin would never suggest this now legendary image of deoxyribonucleic acid – instead, she would point to her achievements in carbon research that contributed to improvements to gas mask technology in the Second World War, or the progress she made in virus research.

She also went on to publish numerous articles on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus during her time at Birkbeck College.

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Together with her colleague Aaron Klug, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry himself in 1982, she contributed to identifying the structure of the plant virus that afflicted not only tobacco, but also paprika and tomatoes.

Born July 25, 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin was the daughter of a Jewish banking family who placed high value on the education of their two daughters and three sons. As a result, the girls received support from a very early stage.

At 17, Rosalind Franklin passed the Cambridge entrance examination, gaining admission to the prestigious women-only Newnham College. However, though women could study there, they were unable to gain the same degrees as their male counterparts.

Rosalind Franklin seized her opportunity and made a reputation for herself through her zeal and tenacity.

Following spells at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association in London, the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L'Etat in Paris, where she specialized in X-ray crystallography, and at King’s College and Birkbeck College in London, Rosalind Franklin died at a very young age from ovarian cancer in April 1958 – probably as a result of prolonged exposure to X-rays.

In their Nobel Prize speech, given four years after Franklin’s death, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins failed to mention Franklin at all. The same was not true for Aaron Klug. She had been his role model, he said, and he expressed his belief that she would also have been awarded the Nobel Prize, if only she had lived long enough and been able to continue her research.

Dr. Matosin, what made you become a scientist?

My father inspired me to be a scientist. He has a deep love of animals and the environment. We were always in the outdoors and watched a lot of documentaries. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I grew curious of the world and how things worked.

What is it about Rosalind Franklin that fascinates you? Are there any aspects of her life or work that strike you as particularly remarkable?

Franklin was also inspired to be a scientist by her father. However her father did not support her career.

Franklin fascinates me because she was so strong and sure that she wanted to be a scientist in spite of her father and during a time when it was extremely difficult for women to have a career in science. She persevered and made some of the most important discoveries in scientific history.

What characterized the prevailing gender roles in Rosalind Franklin’s time?

In those days, female scientists found it extremely difficult to assert themselves in the scientific sphere. Access to education was limited, and progression in academia was near impossible. Their contributions often went unrecognized – or were even claimed by other scientists under their own name.

  • As a woman conducting research in the 1950s, Franklin was marginalized within the scientific community; not to mention the lower wages she was afforded.
  • The results of her research were used without her consent, and her scientific contributions failed to receive the appreciation they were due.
  • How important were Rosalind Franklin’s contributions for chemistry, crystallography and virus research? 
  • Franklin’s by now iconic ‘Photograph 51’ is probably her most well-known contribution to research: it was allegedly circulated without her approval and later used by Watson and Crick to develop the DNA model without recognizing Franklin’s input.

Franklin was already a highly skilled X-ray crystallographer by the time her Director at King’s College London instructed her to conduct research into DNA in the college laboratories. She made other important discoveries that were crucial in shaping crystallography and virology as fields of research.

It’s clear that a great deal has improved for women in science since the 1950s. From your point of view, what exactly has changed?

In my opinion, the most obvious change from the 1950s is certainly the fact that women today endure less sexism. This is in large part down to the feminist movement that began in the 1960s: it raised public awareness of the topic and initiated discussions into how both men and women could do more to identify and tackle sexism.

At the same time, discussion groups at scientific institutions have afforded women the space to support one another and develop ideas for how working conditions can be made more secure for women.

Today, institutions themselves are also far more mindful of gender equality measures that target equal representation for men and women.

The majority of scholarship and funding programmes now also accept childcare leave periods as valid career interruptions.

However, unconscious gender discrimination remains an insidious problem that represents a considerable disadvantage for women in science.

Despite a series of positive developments, the number of women active in STEM subjects remains lower than that of men. What do you see as the causes of this discrepancy?

Though there are more female scientists today, this fact is not reflected in the number of women we see leading departments or research projects.

In fact, this problem is a vicious circle: a lack of leading female scientists means a lack of role models. You don’t aspire to be something you can’t already see.

As a result, young women find it very difficult to believe that a successful career in science is a long-term possibility.

Rosalind Franklin should be a feminist icon – we women in science need her more than ever

The Hollywood actress hasn’t performed on the London stage for over fifteen years, so it’s interesting to speculate why this role in particular would have proved so attractive.

The title of the play may offer a clue. It hints at the controversy, which consumed Franklin’s later life. The infamous ‘photograph 51’ refers to one of her central pieces of research – allegedly shared without her permission and used to develop the DNA model, for which she received no credit.

Really, Franklin’s story offers the perfect plot: a beautiful photograph snatched from an unwitting young female scientist and used without her knowledge to change the course of human history. You couldn’t write it.

So why was Franklin’s research overlooked? Was she marginalised because of her gender, or merely prickly and difficult to work with as some have suggested? The debate rages on.

Rosalind Franklin was a highly skilled X-ray crystallographer by the time John Randall, director at King’s College London, instructed her to research DNA in the college labs in 1951.

There was a global race to identify the correct model for the structure of DNA and Randall was determined to win.

Franklin’s expertise would provide an invaluable contribution. But, also at King’s College at the same time, Maurice Wilkins was using X-ray diffraction in an attempt to solve the problem.

The working relationship between Franklin and Wilkins was not easy.

Rather than working on the DNA conundrum together, the pair operated in isolation.

It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to think of a disgruntled Wilkins suddenly having to share his team, equipment and research with Franklin.

Meanwhile, Franklin may have exacerbated the problem by refusing to discuss her work. Eventually their working relationship became too difficult and Franklin left.

Meanwhile a pair of scientists in Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick, had begun working on the problem in an entirely different way. Their approach was to build models.

Using information from Wilkins’s research they began to tackle the problem – but their initial attempts were unsuccessful.

Then, they used an X-ray photograph of DNA, the now famous ‘photograph 51’. Neither scientist explicitly told Franklin they were using her research, and they later argued it hadn’t been stolen – although others dispute this.

Before long, Franklin saw one of their models and was relieved to find it full of errors. Crick and Watson needed more information. Using more of Franklin’s research they were finally able to correct the errors and were successful in uncovering the now familiar double-helix structure. They published a triumphant article on their discovery in 1953 in Nature magazine.

Ten years later – and four years after Franklin’s death from ovarian cancer – Watson, Crick and Wilkins were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in uncovering the structure of DNA. Franklin received no mention.

Her sister later said that Franklin had no idea how significant her contribution had been and would have 'exploded with fury' is she'd known how much they'd relied on her work.

Watson was later criticised for his unflattering and sexist portrayal of Franklin in his memoir Double Helix. And it was only years later that Crick and Watson would acknowledge how essential Franklin’s research was to their own work.

• Rosalind Franklin would have 'exploded with fury' if she knew her data had been used for DNA discovery, says sister

Some of Franklin’s relatives argue that she would be shocked by her recreation as a feminist icon. They argue that Franklin herself did not feel her gender had a significant impact on her career.

As a young woman scientist myself, I feel that she was a product of her society – accepting the status quo. She may not have felt that she’d experienced obvious gender bias, but there can be no doubt that systematic inequalities existed.

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