Female Badasses in History: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

by spaceinvaderjoe

Rosalind Franklin was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century but is unfortunately and, because of the sexism rampant in her time and profession, under-recognized. She was biophysicist and made critical contribution to the discovery of DNA, of the molecular structure of viruses, and to the polio vaccine.

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 to a very prominent British-Jewish family in London. She was related to Herbert Samuel, first practicing Jewish member of the British cabinet and of High Commissioner in Palestine fame, and Helen Caroline Franklin, trade union organizer and women’s suffrage activist. Already early on in her education she succeeded at science and in 1938 she went off to study chemistry at the Newnham College, Cambridge, where she graduated in 1947 but was only awarded a degree in 1947 when Cambridge started awarding academic titles to women.

After graduating she started to work for the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she study the porosity of coal, which also became the topic of her PhD thesis that she completed in 1945 (before being awarded a BA and an MA as stated above). This position was where she learned how to utilize X-ray vision in order to study the molecular structure of objects; something that would prove crucial to her later discoveries.

In 1951 she started working at the King’s College London at the Biophysics unit. Recently, two scientists at the King’s College had obtained a diffraction picture of DNA, which sparked the further interest in the subject matter. Rosalind was assigned to further research the matter and together with her research assistant she started to use her expertise in X-ray diffraction to the structure of DNA. To go into specific detail about her research would well supersede my own knowledge of the subject, but Franklin’s contribution proved critical to Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double-helix, a crucial step for modern science. Crick and Watson actually based their discovery on Rosalind Franklin’s model she described in an unpublished paper some time earlier. When Crick and Watson published their model, they only gave credit to Rosalind and her partner in coming up with the model in a footnote that stated they had “stimulated” their own work.

In 1953 Rosalind left King’s College and started working Birkbeck College, where she began researching the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and gradually moved on to analyze the Poliovirus. Her research in this area proved crucial in subsequent years for the invention of the Polio vaccine.

In 1956 Rosalind started to show first signs of illness and after a brief period of recovery in 1957, she died of ovarian cancer in April 1958.

Due to her early death, she was never able to witness the recognition Crick and Watson received after proving the DNA double-helix model in 1960. She was also not included in the Nobel Price they received for it because the committee awarding the prize at the time refused to award it posthumously.

The sexism Rosalind had to fight and endure all her life (at King’s College there were only seven women in scientific position and they had to eat at the student’s cafeteria instead of with their male colleagues) even extended after her death since it took a very long time until her contributions were recognized in the scientific community. Watson only acknowledged her contribution 25 years after the fact but since the early 1980s her work has been recognized and she has been honored for it, including but not limited to by putting her name on several stipends and fellowships for women in the sciences, a posthumous prize given by Columbia University, and most importantly by the scientific community by citing her work as a critical contribution to one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.