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03 March 2008

Women do science - Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind_franklin_2 I'm afraid we always used to adopt--let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her. - Francis Crick

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.

Franklin20dna20photo 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.


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Well. All true about Ms. Franklin. I've wondered about her being friendly towards W_tson and Crick, afterwards--not a cross word, not bitter, nothing but accommodating. (Others placed in the same why-didn't-I-get-the-bloody-Nobel hole, like for example Ralph Alpher and his empirical discovery of the so-called Big Bang, were hardly quiet about their disappointment.) She lived in a small, very small, academic world--maybe she just needed absolutely to get along with the boys. Or maybe, as I suspect, maybe she just didn't *need* to be upset; perhaps she was just so far superior that Ms. Franklin didn't find those feelings necessary. As for Mr. W_tson, for all I care his obit could start and end, "research scientist, sphincter". Lovely post.

I am really finding these women's essays very interesting. I, too, think that women tend to think they are not as learned as they should be or capable enough to manage a project, therefore, they don't raise their hands. But I also think you need to look at our society as a whole. We encourage men to raise their hands and succeed; what do we tell women as they grow up? Teach, take care of everyone, encourage everyone else, don't be "proud" of your own accomplishments. Hopefully this situation is changing and I think you are helping it to change with essays like this one.

I always think that the word 'spinster' ought to be reclaimed by feminism. I know that it has disparaging connotations in everyday venacular -- unmarried, unwanted, unloved, past-her-sell-by date, and all of that.

But look at the word and look at what it actually meant when it first emerged in the English language. It refers to a trade or a skill that is marketable. It is a means through which women (old and young) are able to make money and achieve and maintain a certain level of financial independence. And that independence must mean for some that they do not have to settle for an unhappy, loveless, arranged marriage and that they do not have to remain dependent upon the pity or kindness of others.

May I share this? I'd like to post it on the feminst 101 Livejournal community.

right, just a research scientist
Camille Claudel was just a student of Rodin

I spent the better part of my 20's studying without credit, working without credit, producing without credit...others were taking credit for my work.
I'm so over that now. Now I warn younger women of the pitfalls of not standing up and qualifying your work and study as valid/valuable.

Dear Patti, thanks for this post! I'm a woman in my twenties and it is so refreshing to read what you write. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect critically and constructively. My brother loves this quotation by Frederick Buechner, "The place where God calls you is the place where your deepest gladness and the world's hunger meet" and I think of that when I read your writing, because it seems that writing is, in the realm of work, a "deepest gladness" for you and because I think your writing responds to the world's hunger for inclusion, community, love, contemplation, and perspective among many things. As you celebrate women this month, please don't forget to celebrate yourself, your work, and please continue to shine.

This other quotation by Marianne Williamson, given to me by a dear friend, is also worth pondering:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?" Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

You know, Patti, my instinct is to say, "Hurray for all these people!!" as opposed to, 'how amazing of them to contribute in a very unsupported climate.'

All of the people who have made major contributions to the furthering of mankind's survival and betterment occurred in the very circumstance within which they came to prominence. Some were blessed and encouraged, some held back and belittled.

It is shameful, painfully shameful that so many of the contributions of women have come about *despite* their male peers. Yet, that need not be the focus of your month-long telling of these great women's tales.

Instead, Patti, sing the praises of these most-powerful women in a major key! Leave the pinheads who failed to see the light right in front of them to fall to the bottom-dwelling space they placed themselves in by their persistent ignorance...and play their suitable minor key. Or, even better, name them not at all. That, after all, is the ultimate dismissal.

I have a friend who is an expert in Singleness Studies and she reports a lot of reclaiming of the word 'spinster'.

unbelievable... thank you for the focus on women. it seems very appropriate at this time, given the fact that we may have a woman running for president for the first time in our history. way overdue, in my opinion! we had our primary election in ohio yesterday-- very exciting stuff! patti, your writing is wonderful as always.

We have at least Rosalind Franklin Awards. Unfortunately she didn’t have chance to get the ultimate award for her work.

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