The Herstory of the Double Helix
In 1920 one of the most important women in the history of science was born in London. Her name was Rosalind Elsie Franklin. During her adolescence, she often played memory games and did math problems for fun, invariably getting all the answers right. Then, as a teenager, young Rosalind wanted to be a scientist more than anything else in the world. The problem was that this wasn’t an easy career path for girls at that time, to say the least. Nonetheless, she was a very driven and determined person who wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way. So, based on all of her hard work, she eventually won a scholarship to Cambridge to study physics and chemistry. While she was there she earned a doctorate degree. Following this, in 1951, Rosalind Franklin eventually joined King’s College to use x-ray techniques to study the structure of complex proteins. There she perfected her particular form of diffraction. Dr. Franklin then upgraded the lab and began shining high-energy x-rays on both wet and dry DNA. In this way, she had unwittingly entered an undeclared race to unravel the smallest strands of organic material in complex organisms. This was an unbelievably important moment for the whole of humanity, impacting our lives in ways that we still don’t yet know. Although she didn’t actually realize it, the discovery of the atomic structure of deoxyribonucleic acid would become one of the most important scientific achievements in history.
More to the point, back then the academic community was much less friendly to women than it is now. So, Dr. Franklin was extremely isolated from her colleagues. She experienced segregation all the time at work. A labmate of hers named Maurice Wilkins even assumed that she had been hired as his assistant. Still, Rosalind Franklin just kept on doing her job ever so diligently. Then, her unwavering persistence finally paid off in 1952. This is when she obtained Photo 51, the most famous x-ray image of DNA ever taken. It was produced through a 100-hour exposure that took her an entire year to properly analyze. She was well on her way to solving the mystery of the long sought after shape that could explain the amazing diversity of life on Earth. Meanwhile, the American biologist James Watson and the British physicist Francis Crick were also working to unlock the secrets of the seemingly strange structure. At the time, it was thought that DNA was composed of sugar and phosphates in a long chain. The thing was that no one was really sure what shape it actually is, so a number of scientists were trying to figure that out. Then, what happened next was completely inexcusable and totally unforgivable. Without Franklin’s knowledge, Maurice Wilkins took Photo 51 and showed it to Watson and Crick. To make matters worse, they cheated not once but twice. These guys were absolutely unscrupulous albeit rather brilliant DNA detectives. Instead of calculating the exact position of every atom in the molecule, they just did a quick analysis of Franklin’s data and used that to model a few different potential structures. Soon enough they had cracked the elusive genetic code.
Even though they had gained access to Franklin’s invaluable findings in a highly unethical way, Watson and Crick went ahead and published their proposal in April of 1953. Right around the same time, Franklin had finished her calculations as well and came to the same conclusion. So, she submitted her own manuscript. Granted, the journal did publish their manuscripts together, but Franklin’s was last, instead of first like it should have been. This made it look like her experiments confirmed Watson and Crick’s breakthrough, when in fact she had inspired it. The evidence that she revealed was the crucial missing piece of the puzzle that her peers had put together. Franklin had provided the world with the key to understanding the blueprint of life, showing exactly how traits are passed on from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, she was forced to stop working on DNA and she died of cancer in 1958. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she passed away never having known that her work had been stolen. To make matters worse, four years later, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. This was one of the greatest academic injustices of all time, and she wasn’t even around to defend herself. So, for the benefit of everyone on Earth, we all need to do our part to support women in the STEM fields, in an effort to reduce gender inequality in classrooms and laboratories around the world. In honor of Rosalind Franklin and everything that she went through in life and in death, we must put an end to sexism in science once and for all.
As an afterthought, it’s important to understand that Dr. Franklin not only worked out the geometry of DNA but also that of viruses as well. This means that she would have received two different Nobel Prizes if only they could be awarded posthumously. So, maybe that’s something that needs to change too.