Thursday, July 1, 2010

Uppity Women #2

Rosalind Franklin 1920 - 1958
(attribution unknown)

"Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated."

Rosalind Franklin has long been a scientific hero to me. She was the x-ray crystallographer whose exquisite crystallographs of the B-form of DNA revealed its helical structure. She wasn't a brainstormer, she was a scientist, working in a field that without question was almost entirely dominated by men. James Watson, of whom I've never had a particularly good opinion, made fun of her in his obnoxious memoir, The Double Helix, but used her work, without permission, to resolve the helical structure of DNA. Much of the structural information Watson and Crick used for their solution was actually Rosalind Franklin's according to Francis Crick's own statements. She was not given co-authorship on their landmark 1953 Nature paper. Her work, with the co-authorship of her graduate student, Raymond Gosling, was published in the same issue. She said her crystallographic results were "not inconsistent" with the structure proposed by Watson and Crick. Hardly surprising since their proposed structure was based on her work.

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick's paper, Nature published a brief article by Brenda Maddox on Franklin's role in Watson and Crick's discovery. You can read it here. In typically laconic British fashion they don't belabor the point that Watson and Crick committed de facto scientific misconduct. Franklin, who was a great believer in collaborative science, never remarked publicly on the fact that Watson had been shown not just her crystallographs, but her actual notebooks, by her estranged colleague Maurice Wilkins, a fellow crystallographer who was studying the (as it turned out) more difficult A-form of DNA. It's not even clear that this breach of scientific ethics troubled her. Her focus was primarily on research itself, rather than who got credit for what. She truly believed that knowledge was paramount.

Franklin continued to work for the next five years elsewhere (she left her position at King's College) but even vacationed with Crick and his wife in Spain in 1957. She and Francis Crick became quite friendly. In addition to traveling with Crick and his wife Odile, she spent the summer of her last remission in their home.

Many texts still display Franklin's and her student, Gosling's, crystallographs of DNA. Sixty years later they are still considered to be that detailed and remarkable. 

Franklin's Crystallograph 
of the B-form of DNA

Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer, at age 37, in 1958.

Desmond Bernal, in his obituary in Nature, wrote of her ‘extreme clarity and perception in everything she undertook. In her own field, she could hardly have been more distinguished.'

In a 1970 interview with author Anne Sayre, a personal friend of Franklin's, Maurice Wilkins admitted "They could not have gone on to their model, their correct model, without the data [Rosalind] developed here. They had that—I blame myself, I was naïve—and they moved ahead."

Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962, in part for the determination of the structure of DNA, along with Maurice Wilkins. 

The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.

Brenda Maddox's biography, The Dark Lady of DNA is a marvelous account of Rosalind Franklin's life and work.

Note added: 'Uppity Women' is a direct reaction to information contained here.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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