Reviewing the Narrative of Dr. Rosalind Franklin

DNA helix

From a female scientist to a scientist who was female – explored by Hannah Kossowska-Peck.

Today we should not celebrate her for being a female scientist, nor a ‘feminist’ scientist, but an accomplished scientist.

International Women’s Day is a time to focus on the wonderful women in society, both currently and historically. One such woman is Rosalind Franklin, who graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge in 1941 and went on to have a glowing career in chemistry right up until her death in 1958. This fruitful 17-year career is often overshadowed by the later controversy around her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The way she has been represented in scientific and popular culture is extremely diverse. James Watson’s 1968 book ‘The Double Helix’, degrades her to a nuisance getting in the way of their seminal discovery. In the decades that followed, Watson’s account received significant backlash, with writers retelling the story, and in doing so, heralding Franklin as a scientific feminist icon. Today it is important that we recognise the faults in both of these accounts of Franklin. She should not be known as the ‘belligerent’ lab partner to her colleague Maurice Wilkins, nor should she be defined solely by being that female scientist who had her data stolen by men. On International Women’s Day, we should recognise Franklin for the outstanding scientific contribution she made during her career that was cut short by her early death. Today we should not celebrate her for being a female scientist, nor a ‘feminist’ scientist, but an accomplished scientist.

Early in her career, Franklin did important work on the nature of coal during World War Two. This work formed the basis of her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1945. After the war, she worked in Paris for 6 years, where she learnt how to perform the new and exciting analytical technique of X-ray crystallography. She developed a great skill at this technique and went on to publish work about carbon and coal that is now considered fundamental knowledge.

In 1951, she was offered a fellowship at King’s College London to use her X-ray diffraction method on different biological molecules such as lipids and proteins. Soon she was directed to work on DNA with Maurice Wilkins. From letters written to her family, it is apparent that her time at King’s was not the happiest period of her life. It was a very complex environment where she struggled with antisemitism, sexism, elitism, and general personality clashes. However, despite these battles her work was highly successful and she skillfully imaged DNA under different conditions. Franklin and her graduate student found that DNA had two structural forms, A and B, by taking the now famous picture, “Photograph 51”. Numerical data also led her to conclude that phosphate molecules were on the outside of the structure.

By 1953, Franklin and her colleagues at the King’s College laboratory had concluded that the structure of DNA was helical. Franklin drafted a paper and sent it off for peer review. Unfortunately, Watson and Francis Crick, both based in Cambridge, had also been working on the structure of DNA. They published their model of the structure before Franklin. In 1953, Franklin left King’s for Birkbeck College and her focus shifted from DNA to RNA, while still using X-ray crystallography. This work focused on the tobacco mosaic virus, which has a genome made from RNA. Franklin went on to completely overturn contemporary knowledge about this virus. Her work allowed the full structure of the virus to be understood and modeled – a novel feat. Understanding the structure of this virus is vital as it infects and devastates many important crops such as potatoes and tomatoes. Before her death, Franklin moved to work on the polio virus, again using her skills of X-ray crystallography. Unfortunately, her work was cut short due to her deteriorating health, but she continued to publish papers until a few short months before her death.

Although her years at King’s are an important part of Franklin’s story, it is important to recognise her work as a whole. Franklin is often only spoken about during arguments about how much credit she deserves for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Of course, discussion of her contribution is an important, and necessary, conversation to have, but the hardest part about this discussion is that Franklin cannot give us her own account. James Watson did not admit until the publishing of his 1968 book that they used her numerical data, and also saw “Photograph 51”, to solve the problems they were having with their own models. One issue was that their model had the phosphate molecules on the inside of the helix, whereas Franklin’s data had shown that this was not the case. Watson admits she was never credited for this, and that this information was obtained without her knowledge. This was 10 years after her death, and although colleagues, friends, and family have written extensively about her contribution, it is only Franklin herself who could have settled this debate.

It is also important to highlight that in Franklin’s day the discovery of DNA structure was not considered the ground-breaking achievement we now see it as. It was not until the implications of the findings were researched that the scientific community began to see the significance of this discovery. Later research, such as the Human Genome Project, subsequently rapidly increased the number of citations of Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper.

With the popularity of the 1953 paper increasing throughout the years, discussion around Franklin has also risen. Watson’s 1968 book writes extensively about Franklin in a shockingly negative way. He first mentions her in a paragraph-long account of her physical appearance, an overly critical and sexist description. Below this he writes,

“Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously more preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA”.

Franklin was hired as an equal in the laboratory with Wilkins, but this clearly was not Watson’s perception of her. The book has prompted many to write responses, including colleagues, friends, family, and feminist historians. These accounts have been far-reaching and diverse. Some are enthusiastically feminist, re-painting Franklin as the main player in the discovery and a victim of entrenched sexism in the scientific community. Others are weaker in their commitment to the extent of her contribution and try to discuss all of the factors that might explain why she was not credited. Crucially, the extensive literature on this topic drowns out a representation of Franklin as a successful scientist in her own right.

Dr. Rosalind Franklin was much more than a female scientist whose data was stolen for male success. She had a life full of great times with her family, friends, and a diverse range of research teams. Of course, the saddest part of her story is the ending, as Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37. However, she enjoyed a scientific career that was as fruitful as most scientific careers that last many decades more. She revolutionised many important scientific fields and her contribution is still hugely influential to this day.

International Women’s Day is the perfect opportunity to celebrate her as a scientist who happened to be a woman. Whilst we should not fail to recognise the untold hardship of her subjugation from sexism, her legacy will be much more fruitfully maintained if we celebrate her work, not merely an overly-gendered historical figure.


Artwork by Hannah Kossowska-Peck