Women do science - Rosalind Franklin
A man who would later become a friend wrote a book in the early 1980s called Women in the Workplace: A Man's Perspective, in which he posited the idea that men and women are different. “THEY ARE NOT!” I yelled in protest, too young to understand that noticing difference need not imply making a judgment. We were aboard a ship where we were attending a conference in the middle of the ocean, on deck, arguing, my 25-year-old self to his 50-year-old self.
Lloyd smiled knowingly from his vantage point of years (which, of course, irritated me even more). “I want you to notice what happens in a boardroom or meeting when a new project is announced,” he said quietly. “When the boss asks, ‘who can do this?’ all the men’s arms will shoot up immediately, and many of the women—who are likely far more capable—will sit and think to themselves, ‘well, I think I could do it, if I just studied some more or learned some more or had a chance to think through it more.’”
I’ve watched what he predicted play out in every organization I’ve worked in or with in the two decades since that day he and I first met. In part, that’s the story of Rosalind Franklin.
Her death certificate read, simply: "A Research Scientist, Spinster, Daughter of Ellis Arthur Franklin, a Banker,” when she died in 1958 at the tender age of thirty-seven.
Let’s leave “spinster” alone for the moment, as tempting as it is not to, and focus on the opening phrase, “A Research Scientist.”
If by “research scientist,” we mean “a scientist by the merits of whose groundbreaking work Watson and Crick were able to catapult themselves to the Pantheon of DNA and a Nobel Prize,” then, yes, she was a research scientist.
In the early 50s, Rosalind Franklin started using x-ray diffraction techniques to explore the structure of DNA. The x-ray diffraction pictures taken by Franklin at this time have been called, by J.D. Bernal, "amongst the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”
James Watson and Francis Crick obtained prepublication data from Franklin's DNA X-ray diffraction photographs without her knowledge, giving them the critical insight they needed into the DNA structure. Watson and Crick then published their model in Nature on April 25, 1953, in an article describing the double-helical structure of DNA with a small footnote to Franklin's data.
In James Watson's account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, entitled The Double Helix, Rosalind Franklin was depicted inaccurately as an underling of Maurice Wilkins at King's College. In fact, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin were peers. It would be Wilkins who would join Watson and Crick in accepting a Nobel Prize for the work. As a side note, Watson’s book was refused publication by the university where he taught, Harvard, because of its many inconsistencies and errors, and was published by a popular press instead.
In his memoir, Watson implied that Franklin didn't know what she had in her crystallographic image, let alone what to do with it. He alleged that Franklin--when it came to assessing the DNA form--was indignantly antihelical and dead-set against model building. Not so, rebutted Ann Sayre, in her book, Rosalind Franklin and DNA. Franklin clearly saw the helical nature of DNA in her image, as proved by her explicit laboratory notes. And, Sayre noted, Franklin was merely against premature, non-fact-based DNA modeling, as demonstrated by her spoken contempt for Crick's and Watson's first, ham-fisted effort in November 1951.
The spinster research scientist needed to know more, and they just raised their arms.
Here’s to Rosalind. Here’s to us. Let’s raise our arms. We’re capable. We’re smart. We’re important and skilled and just as ready as we need to be.