Series: The Matilda Effect - Profile: Rosalind Franklin
January 17, 2021
One of the more famous examples of the Matilda Effect in action is Rosalind Franklin's story. It is unclear who is actually to blame for the lack of credit, or late credit, to Franklin for her imperative contribution and discovery of the helical structure of DNA. Without her work, Watson and Crick might not have ever presented such a comprehensive view of DNA; how they received her work, however, is what makes this story a complex one.
The Early Years
Franklin grew up in a household in London that valued education, hard work, and public service, so it is no wonder that Franklin's priorities revolved around scientific discovery. After completing her schooling and eventually earning her Ph.D., she enjoyed an adventurous lifestyle in Paris before moving to London where she began working at King's College.
Her education was a bit of a winding road that reflects her values of hard work, education, and public service. After studying physical chemistry at Cambridge University in 1941, she was offered a fellowship to research the same subject there; however, during the course of WWII, she left her fellowship to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she dedicated her time to researching the physical chemistry of coal and carbon for the war effort. She was later able to utilize this research in her doctoral thesis, landing her a hard-earned doctorate degree in 1945.
It was only a few years later that Franklin found what would become the backbone of her life's work - X-ray crystallography. Working in Paris at the time, she spent three years at the State Chemical Laboratory, developing the foundation she would later use in her efforts to discover the structure of DNA.
Contributions to DNA Research
In 1951, Franklin accepted a fellowship at King's College, where she was to begin work with Maurice Wilkins on the development of the structure of DNA. However, due to some confusion, she believed that the only people working on this were to be herself and a graduate student. Because of this misunderstanding, her relationship with Wilkins was off to a rocky start and never quite recovered during her time at King's College. While the two were originally meant to work together, they each worked in relative isolation of one another as a result of this misunderstanding.
As Franklin worked, she determined that two forms of DNA, wet and dry, resulted in different pictures of the structure - the wet form producing a helical structure. After analyzing and problem-solving for over a year, Franklin determined that both wet and dry samples had two helices (a double-helix structure).
Her comrades down the way, Watson and Crick, were working on a theoretical structure of DNA (quantifiably confirmed by Franklin's work), and, unbeknownst to Franklin, Wilkins shared with them photos (including the famous “photo 51” - the final piece in recognizing that DNA has a double helix structure) and other unpublished materials from Franklin, which Watson and Crick were able to use in confirming their theory and publishing their “findings” in Nature that spring.
Watson and Crick never told Franklin that they had seen and used her unpublished work in their theory, so she was never appropriately credited.
Of course, her story does not end there. In and around this time, she transferred her fellowship to another lab in Birkbeck College, where she worked in determining the structure of plant viruses, namely the tobacco mosaic virus. Her expertise in the structure of this virus was recognized by the Royal Institution in 1951, when she was asked to construct physical models of the virus structure for the Brussels World Fair Science Exhibition in 1958, the same year in which she died of ovarian cancer.
Her colleagues recognized and acknowledged her significant contributions to science in both her earlier and later research; however, possibly her most significant contributions, and lack of credit, are what have garnered the most attention. Perhaps most outlandish is the fact that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for their work in the structure of DNA; none of them gave credit to Franklin for her contributions. Had it not been for the (inaccurate) portrayal of Franklin in Watson's published memoir, The Double Helix, the world may never have known or fully understood how her work contributed to the foundation of Crick and Watson's publications.
Unfortunately, as she had passed before the book was published, Franklin was unable to defend herself from her portrayal as an angry woman-scientist who fiercely guarded her work from her colleagues; Watson also made her out to be a scientist unable to interpret the findings of her own work. Later, a friend of Franklin's published a separate work as a rebuttal to Watson's memoir, which gained traction and attention for Franklin's contributions to the structure of DNA. This book praised Franklin as a feminist martyr, which was also an unintentiona minimization of someone who was, simply put, a scientist researching and publishing exceptional work.
Rosalind Franklin was an adventurer, a scientist, and today is a female icon for both academics and scientists. She devoted herself to her work, which was exceptional, and while she was acknowledged for much of her significant contribution to science, her most famous contributions were miscredited to three male colleagues, none of whom gave Franklin ample credit. She was a woman with a fierce admiration for and love of science, and is often remembered for a quote that reflects her life and values: “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
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