Rosalind Franklin

Women in science

Elisabetta Benazzi

Rosalind Franklin produced the now well-known Photograph 51, namely the first photo in which it was possible to see the double-helix structure of DNA, which many experts describe as ‘one of the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken’.

Woman, researcher, carbon and carbon science enthusiast, Rosalind Franklin was all of these. She was a scientist who dedicated her life to research and whose contribution was crucial in discovering the structure of DNA and its replication mechanism. However, unlike her colleagues James Watson and Francis Crick, she never won the Nobel Prize.

She was born in 1920, in England, into a wealthy middle-class family of mostly bankers – a relevant detail for a society that was still class-based. Being the only girl, she found herself confined to a boarding school at the age of nine. She spent her school years amidst success and a feeling of inadequacy due to the competitive environment that was unsuitable for a shy girl like her, who was constantly anxious about her grades. By the time she was sixteen, her ideas were clear: science was her calling, her future. As the rise of Hitler was unfolding in Europe with the Annexation of Austria in 1938, and her parents preparing to take in refugees, she passed her entrance exams at Newnham College, in Cambridge, and left London to move to the college town where the influence of political events was still very slight. Galvanised by the stimulating atmosphere of Cambridge, Rosalind had the opportunity to listen to the greatest scholars of the time. As soon as her doctoral thesis was published, it was clear that her studies would have been a breakthrough (e.g. their effects on the manufacture of gas masks with active carbon filters), earning her a reputation that led to her moving to Paris. In the French capital, she became even more proficient in the technique that was to become both her blessing and her curse: X-ray crystallography. Simultaneously, she began to interact with an environment that was positively different. It seemed that in Paris Rosalind was able to breathe a new and vibrant ambience, teeming with prolific collaborations and stimulating conversations with colleagues, which formed the basis of several articles she published during this period and thanks to which she finally felt heard and considered. The fact that Paris was more open to welcoming female talent, even in the scientific field, was probably due to the emancipation and esteem won by women such as Edith Piaf and Simone de Beauvoir.

Unfortunately, Rosalind’s happy time in Paris soon came to an end, and she was forced to return to King’s College, in London, where she worked as a research associate under the supervision of Professor Maurice Wilkins. Her relationship with Professor Maurice Wilkins soon strained, mainly due to a misunderstanding. Rosalind, having achieved personal growth in Paris, was convinced she could work quite independently; at the same time Wilkins believed she was there to support him. This misunderstanding led the two colleagues to resent each other and so, while she was working at operating speed on the analysis of the structure of biological fibres (i.e. DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, the main constituent of chromosomes and therefore of genes), a void grew around her. King’s College was home to a widespread male chauvinism, which inevitably contrasted with Rosalind’s ambitious and determined temperament, and she was not prepared to yield to male scientists because they were simply men. What is more, in Paris she had tasted and internalised a freedom and emancipation that did not, of course, fit the bigoted attitude prevailing in London. However, this less than positive environment did not prevent her from developing an extremely innovative technique that used X-rays to ‘photograph’ living and non-living material by means of a micro-camera capable of producing high-definition photographs. It was thanks to this invention that Rosalind produced the now well-known Photograph 51, namely the first photo in which it was possible to see the double-helix structure of DNA, which many experts describe as ‘one of the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken’. As luck would have it, Wilkins, with whom the relationship was growing ever tenser, was already attending a conference before this astonishing photo was taken, at which the well-known James Watson and Francis Crick were also present. Both were interested in understanding the mechanism of gene replication, and Wilkins told the conference about recent studies in the King’s College laboratory, stressing the importance of understanding the structure of the gene components in order to reach a conclusion about replication. Wilkins then went a step further, revealing Dr Franklin’s early findings to Watson and Crick, allowing the two scientists to formulate an initial, fallacious hypothesis in 1951; but this was later refined thanks to photograph 51, which Wilkins shared with the two scientists unbeknown to Rosalind, who was no longer working at King’s College at the time. Together with Crick, Watson used Photograph 51 to develop the chemical model of the DNA molecule, which was then published in Nature during 1953, while Rosalind’s work was published posthumously in smaller publications. However, she seemed unaware of the injustice and continued her work at Birkbeck College where her reputation continued to grow, with increasing invitations to lectures and a wide network of contacts enabling her to continue publishing. She kept working until her death in 1958 after a nearly two-year battle with Ovarian Cancer. Rosalind was therefore already dead when Watson and Crick were nominated for, and won, the Nobel Prize in 1962.

While it is true that the Nobel Prize has never been awarded posthumously, Dr. Franklin’s work was not even mentioned by the prize committee. And it is here that the work of science historians, who have re-examined the historical period in which the famous photograph 51 was obtained, has helped us to clarify and highlight the unjust side of this story. While it is true that the photograph was crucial to the development of the DNA model, especially concerning the helical nature of anti-parallel double helix strands, it is still unclear whether Rosalind could have obtained a similar result on her own – the structure of DNA – if Wilkinson had not released her photograph. But one thing is certain: Rosalind Franklin paid a high price for “wanting to do research like a man”, working harder than her partners but receiving half the recognition. Dr. Franklin was an emancipated woman, she attended conferences in the first person, she claimed, rightly, to be a ‘group leader’, she made legitimate demands for recognition that a society of men disliked, so much so that Watson himself described her in his biography, The Double Helix, as “the terrible and shrewd Rosy”. Her merits as a valuable associate whose work was fundamental in the process of discovering the structure of DNA were never acknowledged.
More honest and fair, however, is the reinterpretation of her story made in the years following her death. Rosalind’s image was rehabilitated, for example in Mary Ellman’s book Thinking about Women – which largely contributed to the foundation of feminist literary criticism – in which she accused Watson’s biography of misogyny. This book was followed by numerous writings from various authors about the unjust, wrongful treatment of Rosalind Franklin, among them The Dark Lady of DNA. This is how Dr Franklin became a feminist icon over the years, even though she was never overtly feminist; she was simply a scientist who wanted to practice science like her male colleagues. However, today she is also a symbol of the struggles that an intelligent woman has to go through to be accepted in the scientific world.

[3] James D, Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of Dna, New York, Atheneum 1968 [trad. it. Gunther S. Stent (a cura di) La doppia elica: trent’anni dopo, Milano, Garzanti Editore 1982

[4] Robert Olby, Storia della Doppia Elica, Mondadori, Milano, 1974

[5] Anne Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, New York, Norton & C. 1975

[6] Horace Freeland Judson, L’ ottavo giorno della creazione: la scoperta del DNA, Roma, Editori Riuniti 1982

[7] Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Londra, HarperCollins Publishers 2002, [trad. it. Rosalind Franklin, la donna che scoprì la struttura del Dna, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri 2004

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