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Rosalind Franklin: Men, Women, and the Nobel Prize

If you’ve delved into the origin of DNA and the history of its findings, you may be familiar with Rosalind Franklin.

Following the discovery of DNA in 1869 by Friedrich Miescher, questions arose regarding the source of genetic material. Prior to several experiments conducted by Oswald Avery and co-researchers McLeod and McCarty, protein was pre-supposed to be the source of DNA. As Avery, McLeod, and McCarty as well as others (Frederick Griffith, Hershey, Chase) delved into the nature of genetic replication and the components of DNA which provides for replication and life itself.

Rosalind Franklin, a physical chemistry prodigy, in the midst of her researching career, accepted a research position at King’s College London to work with DNA as an X-ray crystallography. Her prized crystallography techniques, made with such precision, produced the infamous Photo 51,  which depicted light refracting photos of prepared DNA strands under X-rays.

As the story goes, American biological physicist James D. Watson and Francis Crick, researchers at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University had also intended to make advances towards the structure of DNA. To solve the puzzle, they sought the unconventional method of building models and utilizing information released from published work of researchers, including the results of Erwin Chargraff, Linus Pauling, and, most importantly, Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin, according to her letters, exhausted her efforts at King’s College London. All the while, as the only female researcher in her department, was mocked as the “Dark Lady” by co-researcher John T. Randall. An avid hiker and traveller, Franklin escaped the threshold of her laboratory with constant trips with her friends to the Swiss Alps among other places.

In the last few days of Franklin’s stay at King’s College, she presented her findings of A and B forms of DNA from her intricately developed X-ray photographs, as well as confirming that DNA was indeed a double-helix shape with a sugar-phosphate backbone. There, in the audience, was Nobel prize winner-to-be James D. Watson; the American prodigy of Cavendish Laboratory. Rather than taking notes, Watson, unscientifically, discussed in The Double Helix how plain Franklin appeared and stated that she would be more attractive had “She done something novel with her hair.”

Following the lecture, Watson describes that he approached Franklin in her office, to which she had allegedly stormed towards him, despite the fact that she was a woman of quite small stature (5 feet, 2 inches, to be exact). Watson managed to get a hold of Rosalind’s Photo 51 as he peered into her office to see the photo that was not revealed at the lecture. On the train-ride back to Cavendish, Watson had  already drawn the structure of the DNA on a newspaper and solved the puzzle that is it’s structure. Rushing back to the lab, he and Crick constructed a fixed version of their previous model (their previous model which was criticized by “Rosy the Witch” for their failure to recognize that the phosphates were on the outside, not the inside of the structure.)

The injustice which lies in this story and its relevance to women and gender studies as a whole is woven into the failure of Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine and Physiology (for their discovery of the structure of DNA) Watson and Crick to properly recognize Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to their discovery. Upon publication of Watson’s first-hand account of his research in The Double Helix, his ridicule of Rosalind as “Rosy, the Witch”, which was not received well by the family of Franklin, who had passed away only a few years earlier with Ovarian Cancer. By the time she was credited for her contribution to the double-helix structure, it was already too late. Her name was in shambles. Rosalind Franklin, a portrait of women and their lowly position in the pantheon of science, served as a symbol for feminists alike.

This story particularly brought to light the act of blaming victims, especially victims whom were women, in cases in which the victim is undoubtedly not at fault. As a Jew and a woman, Franklin did indeed face discrimination. The issue of victim blaming is illustrated in this quote by author Chaim Bermant of The Cousinhood: The Anglo-Jewish Gentry.

“A Jew often feels compelled to try that much harder than his colleagues; a woman in a man’s world has a similar compulsion. Rosalind perhaps tried too hard on both scores and approached her work with a jealous determination which some of her colleagues found alarming. She seemed to carry a constant air of embattlement about her, and felt that her first-class ability and achievements were not given due recognition.”

*In fact, Rosalind died before Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize, so essentially calling her a jealous individual who insisted that her achievements were unrecognized is quite an ignorant, blindly-stated opinion.

Although Rosalind has become an icon for feminists as a doomed heroine, Franklin’s lab assistant Aaron Klug remarked, “Rosalind was not a feminist in the ordinary sense, but was determined to be treated equally just like anybody else.”

Was Rosalind the victim of a male-dominated scientific institution, or simply an avid researcher; humble in her efforts to pursue her passions and peruse through life in wanderlust?

, Photo 51, as prepared by Rosalind Franklin

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