Author: Jenna Windhorst
Sexism in the workplace is an unfortunate hindrance to women’s success and recognition for their particular contributions. One woman, Rosalind Franklin, fell victim to this. That didn’t stop her, however, from dedicating her life to scientific research. Franklin should specifically be remembered for her contribution to studying the double helix structure of DNA.
Franklin grew up in a family highly “involved in social and public works” (DNAFTB). From a young age Franklin wished to pursue science, but was warned by her father that it would be hard for her as a woman. Although discouraging, Franklin still persevered in school and ended up studying physics and chemistry at Cambridge University. After graduating she took on a research scholarship and worked with R.G.W. Norris “without great success” (DNAFTB). Soon afterwards, Franklin took part in the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA), which prompted her first publications in structural properties, but in this case starting with coal.
Starting in 1946, Franklin “perfected her skills in X-ray Crystallography” where her life’s work began (Nature). King’s College in London offered her a scholarship, which enabled her to begin her most notable research with DNA. From this opportunity, Franklin got incredible photographs of crystallized DNA fibers. It was through this discovery, Franklin was able to explain the structure and double helix pattern of DNA.
Due to her death at the age of 37 to ovarian cancer, Franklin’s life in DNA research was short-lived. Franklin never truly got appraisal for her discoveries, such as with the men that continued on with her research. One of these men happens to be James Watson. Watson had attended her lecture where she described her findings. It was through collaboration with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins that they continued on with DNA structuralization analysis. Since Wilkins knew and worked with Franklin in the past, ending their partnership over their constant clashing, he presented the X-ray data Franklin obtained to Watson and Crick. Unknown to Watson and Crick of whose unpublished data Wilkins had come forward with, they were able to confirm their own theories about DNA structure and publish their discoveries.
When the time came to present the Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine in 1962, Watson and Crick were awarded it. Franklin wasn’t able to receive the Nobel Prize as the Nobel committee does not give posthumous prizes, meaning that Franklin didn’t get the recognition she deserved until far beyond her death.
Franklin lived an incredible life dedicated to her research and discoveries. She was a strong-willed, intelligent woman, deserving of recognition for her work that helps us understand the structure of DNA. She was an inspiration to many female scientists to come, as she was an independent woman of great determination. As time goes on, her contribution to science is notable and far more highly praised.
Fun Fact: Rosalind Franklin was given the nickname, "the Dark Lady of DNA" by her biographer, Brenda Maddox, based on her contribution to the discovery of DNA structure that went largely unknown (Cosmos Magazine).
Science History Images/Alamy Photos
I feel like learning about her life and work in my biology class was one of the first times I was taught of the sexism that exists in STEM. It made me really upset that Watson and Crick got the credit with no mention of Franklin in most science classes and honestly, it still does. I feel her recognition came shamefully late, especially given the importance of her work to the publishing of Watson and Crick's theory on DNA structure.
I remember learning about her in my biology class. Such a shame that she received her recognition so late. She deserved more!
It’s true that we must hold Watson, Crick, and Wilkins accountable— even if they “finished” what she started.