Rosalind Franklin, the double helix and gender equality in science

We want to celebrate International Women’s Day (8 March 2016) with a tribute to the outstanding work of Rosalind Franklin – who serves as a further example of past and present struggle towards gender equality in science.

Rosalind Franklin discovered the X-ray diffraction image of DNA, a key technique that lead to the discovery of the DNA double helix later on. In addition, she did pioneering work on the molecular structure of viruses, coal and graphite. She managed to realize these immensely important contributions to science under very discouraging conditions as a young female scientist, overcoming the opposition of her father and struggling against gender discrimination at work.

Rosalind Franklin died very young, at the age of 37 and did not receive any public recognition for her scientific contributions to the discovery of DNA during her life time. Her contributions however, were recognized posthumously in part (and indirectly) via the recognition of the Nobel Prizes to James Watson, James Crick and Maurice Wilkins who build substantially upon her work.

Rosalind Franklin is another important example to insist on removing all barriers for women in science and fight for equal visibility and recognition of women's scientific achievements. As on previous occasions, we want to share the the work of Rosland Franklin through her portrait and fictive letter by Jennifer Mondfrans.


Rosalind Franklin (1920- 1958)

By Jennifer Mondfrans (At Least I Have You, To Remember Me)

Rosalind Franklin portrait by Jennifer Mondfrans
Dear You,

I came from a family with money. I was able to go one of the few girls’ school in London that taught physics and chemistry. I was a top student, but even so, my father was against higher education for women and wanted me to a social worker.

Perhaps he was envious. He always wanted to become a scientist, but World War I came and he became a college professor instead. But I would not let him deter my dream. I was determined to become a scientist. I got my degree from Cambridge and after a fellowship, went to work for British Coal. Even at my first job, I created fundamental studies and published several papers on carbon and graphite microstructures.

My work got noticed and I got a job offer in Paris. It was here I learned X-ray diffraction techniques. I loved France. Our lab would have morning chats and I would serve coffee in evaporating dishes.

When I got a research fellowship to set up and improve the X-ray crystallography unit at King’s College, no one had worked on it for months. I got two really good photographs that showed that DNA was a double helix. When Maurice Wilkins came back, he assumed I was a technical assistant and treated my work as his own. It was a mistake most men made. Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours my colleagues went to men-only pubs.

It was Wilkins who showed Watson and Crick my X-ray data. The data confirmed the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had theorized for DNA. In 1953, we all published papers based on my X-ray data in the same Nature issue.

In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for solving the structure of DNA. I was not included because I died of cancer in 1958.

Still, I never believed that science was about reward. It was about the work and doing science was the greatest reward.



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