'Rosalind who?' said my husband, 'Who is she?' On Christmas Eve, we were watching on the news the launch of the James Webb telescope which is the replacement for the well known but now obsolete 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. Webb ran the fledging space agency NASA for only a short time – 1961 to 1968 – 'he did more for the promotion of science awareness in his government than almost any other government official'. (Or maybe he just helped them beat the Russians to the moon.)
The next major launch which will be reported in the national news in 2022 will be the Rosalind Franklin Rover. Its mission will be to further advance the answer to one of humanity's long-standing questions since we first looked into the sky: are we alone? Is there, was there ever, life on Mars?
So who was Rosalind Franklin? This recognition of her contribution to our current science knowledge and successes – primarily her revelation of the helix structure of DNA from which so many advances in genetics have stemmed – including the recent development of vaccines – has provided a significant case study in the history of sexism in science.
Rosalind was born in 1920 and grew up in Notting Hill, pursuing through her education her love of the sciences, and subsequently becoming one of a very small percentage of women working in the sciences at that time. After acquiring a BSc from Cambridge, and a PhD in physical chemistry while working as a researcher for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, she became fascinated by crystallography and spent some time in the prestigious Laboratorie Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris. There she developed and mastered the use of X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of complex molecules.
In the early 1950s, there were a number of research teams rivalling for the accolade of determining the structure of DNA – the central molecule of life which carries all the genetic information to specify the construction of every living thing. The American chemist Linus Pauling was the most serious rival to researchers in Britain, James Watson and Francis Crick at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins at King's College. By 1951, Wilkins was unsuccessfully trying to use X-ray crystallography to determine the structure, and hearing of Franklin's skills he invited her to join his team.
But as one source notes: 'Wilkins was out of town when Rosalind Franklin was hired, and their first meeting did not go well. He mistook her for a new secretary, and it appears that they never established a good working relationship as fellow scientists. Franklin had acquired the impression she would be working alone in the lab; Wilkins saw her in a more supportive role to his work. In Watson's later memoir, he referred to Franklin as Rosy
, complaining that she had an attitude, and was too independent'.
This kind of experience seems to have been typical of many brilliant women in the sciences, as sexism was ingrained in the scientific communities, which comprised almost exclusively men, and in which all senior staff at the time were men. However, Franklin worked purposively on, and by 1953 her data and pioneering X-ray photographs of the DNA molecule, especially photo 51, revealed the double-helix structure of the complex chemical that many different research teams around the world were struggling to discover.
In 1953, Crick and Watson published their ground-breaking scientific paper on the double-helix structure of DNA which led to their 1962 Nobel Prize. Wilkins was credited as a contributor, but not Franklin, although her data and photo 51 were key evidence presented in their exposition. Professor Geoffrey Browell, archivist at King's College, describes photo 51, which to the experienced eye clearly shows the double-helix structure, as 'arguably the most important photo ever taken'. However, at the time, Franklin received no recognition for her critical contribution to the discoveries.
Some believe that Watson and Crick 'stole' Franklin's photo and data, abetted by Wilkins; others that they legitimately used her data which was 'in the public realm' – although not formally published. Using her photo and the data from a brief informal report, these two were able to complete the calculations they needed to make their case. Since the report was not confidential, they apparently felt free to use it without permission or acknowledgement and they told no-one at King's that they were about to publish a paper which included her data. Some regard this as 'plagiarism', others that they were merely being 'cavalier'.
Matthew Cobb writing in The Guardian
believes there is no evidence that the pair were 'driven by sexist disdain', though he notes that Franklin presented her key data at a small seminar at King's some time before it was obtained by Watson and Crick. Watson was present at the seminar, and 'had he bothered to take notes during her talk, instead of idly musing about her dress sense and her looks, he would have provided Crick with the vital numerical evidence 15 months before the breakthrough finally came'.
There has been a wide-ranging debate since into how much she should be credited, and whether she should have shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson – most agreeing that whatever the merit of her claim she would not have been awarded a prize in 1962 regardless, because of the pervading sexism in the system. But whatever version of events is supported, it seems unarguable that without her X-ray photograph and research data, the work of Watson and Crick in trying to conceptualise and model the structure of DNA would have taken considerably longer.
There is no record of Franklin's reaction to these events. She moved soon after to a laboratory in Birkberk College in which she pursued investigations into the structure of RNA and especially viruses. She died from ovarian cancer in 1958 aged only 37 years. In 1982, her colleague Aaron Klug was awarded the Nobel Prize for work which she had started on the structure of viruses. Had she been alive, she almost certainly would have shared it. Recognition of her significant contributions to science has been slow but growing. In 1997, an amateur Australian astronomer named John Broughton discovered a previously unidentified asteroid, and named it '9241 Rosfranklin', and since the 1990s academic laboratories, buildings, fellowships and lecture theatres have been named after her.
More recently, her innovative use of X-rays to investigate the nature and properties of biological structures has provided a foundation for a whole new and productive area of life sciences and medical research. This culminated in 2018 in the establishment, 60 years after her death, of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, formally opened in September 2021, with the mission of using advanced technologies to investigate many of the pressing concerns of current life: the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the nature of viruses, the interactions of drugs with pathogens, and with tumours, and much more. In 2019, the James Watson Halls in the University of Portsmouth were renamed the Rosalind Franklin Halls.
And, most recently – a prestigious international acknowledgement of her importance in the naming of a joint European Space Agency and Russian Space Agency initiative – the launch of the rocket planned for 2022 carrying the Rosalind Franklin Rover. The rover will deliver a set of scientific instruments onto the surface of Mars to look for signs of life, to our understanding of which she contributed so much.
Mary Simpson is Professor Emeritus of Classroom Learning at Edinburgh University