Achievements Biography

Finding Photograph 51: Rosalind Franklin & the Discovery of DNA

Photo 51 as published in Nature 171

I thought of Rosalind Franklin while reading Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, a compelling novel about the effect of Turner syndrome on a family. Turner syndrome is caused by a chromosome aberration and that led me to wonder what ever happened to the lady scientist who famously helped James Watson and Francis Crick discover the double helix structure of DNA. Like many people, I couldn’t quite remember her name but I knew she’d done something important.

Rosalind Franklin was indeed a lady; born in 1920 into a wealthy British banking family, she had to fight to attend Cambridge and become a scientist. Her work on coal efficiency during World War II “helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibers.” Watson and Crick were aware of her work but downplayed her contribution until recently. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer four years before they won the Nobel Prize along with her lab rival Maurice Wilkins. Not that she was nominated…

Of course scientific discoveries build upon each other, and the quest to understand DNA actually began in 1869 with Friedrich Miescher’s discovery of nucleic acids. By the 1950s, several scientists were honing in on the actual structure of DNA. Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College had refined her study of DNA strands by perfecting an x-ray technique which focused a fine beam of x-rays to reveal the water content of DNA. Watson heard her lecture about this discovery but failed to take notes. Fortunately for Watson and Crick, Wilkins shared her work without her knowledge.

I’d never known what exactly Franklin contributed to the work Watson and Crick were doing. They acknowledge her and Wilkins in their seminal 1953 Nature paper but are quite vague about why, perhaps because they didn’t want to discuss quite how much seeing her work helped. In the same issue, she and her collaborator Raymond Gosling published photograph 51, the visual impetus for Watson and Crick’s double helix theory. Wilkins published a related article as well. As happens with sports, the scientific “scorers” got all the credit while those teammates who put them in scoring position were overshadowed.

Franklin’s comparatively anonymous life is a direct counterpoint to that of Marie Curie, who received two Nobel prizes and a level of world fame rarely seen. Interestingly, however, both women accomplished their scientific goals by becoming excellent laboratory technicians; supervising assistants and writing papers while refining and improving various methodologies. Curie painstakingly isolated radium; Franklin precisely applied x-ray crystallography to reveal the structure of DNA. The sexism they faced may have compelled both to surpass the skill level of their male counterparts and lead to their crowning achievements. That they did so at a time when both were formally rejected from official academies on the basis of their sex testifies to their focus, dedication and intelligence. Franklin had earned her doctorate before Cambridge revised its discriminatory policies and retroactively awarded women bachelor’s degrees.

Franklin lived in a world that expected women to be educated but not intellectual. Knowledge was fine, exploring and expanding it was not. As a girl who solved math puzzles for fun, she probably could not imagine fitting herself into the social world of contemporaries like Pamela Digby, an intelligent British socialite also born in 1920 who changed the world through a more traditional application of her feminine gifts. The daughter of a baron, Digby lived the high life but aspired to more and achieved it through ambitious marriages, first to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, then Broadway producer Leland Hayward and finally industrialist Averell Harriman. In 1971 she became an American citizen. Eventually, she hosted an influential Georgetown salon that supported the Democratic Party’s move to the center and the election of Bill Clinton as president. He rewarded her with an ambassadorship to France.

Yet Franklin chose a very different path of achievement. During World War II while Digby was socializing and having numerous affairs, Franklin was studying coal structure to find more efficient means of fueling the national defense. overcame those expectations and created a life that was satisfying to her intellectually and personally. A decade after her death, many friends defended her against Watson’s assertion in The Double Helix that she was a mere lab assistant who didn’t know what she was looking at. Anne Sayres wrote Rosalind Franklin and DNA to articulate the exact nature of Franklin’s work.

There are those who argue that Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA was essential and others who disagree. It’s lovely to hope that if she’d been alive, she too would have been recognized by the Nobel Committee with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. What sparks a more important discussion, however, is whether the recognition is more important than the work.

There’s something about anonymity that’s attractive in today’s hyper-celebrity world. The most confident scientists know their value without applause meters, prizes and recognition banquets. Universities and laboratories compete for their services even though they never make headlines. Working without attention allows for freedom of exploration without the pressure of expectations imposed by the outside world. Their work is respected by peers and they are ‘big fish in a small pond.’ That may be a blissful life for many, and the path that Rosalind Franklin would have chosen for herself had she survived ovarian cancer. She was wise enough to leave the poisonous atmosphere at the prestigious King’s College in London for the academic freedoms of Birkbeck College. Her work in other areas continues to influence science, and she may well have been happy for decades whether the whimsical gifts of prizes and fame were bestowed upon her or not.

And yet.

What have we lost by her anonymity? How many women haven’t gone into the sciences because there were no role models, no famous women scientists encouraging them? What discoveries haven’t been made?

It’s crucial for everyone to have role models, and for women in the sciences in particular. Over the last decade, the Royal Society has established a Rosalind Franklin medal for female scientists and the University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School has been renamed the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Objective, comprehensive biographies are finally being written for general audiences as well as children. In June of 2012 Franklin’s sister, historian Jennifer Glynn, will publish a memoir that focuses on Franklin’s life and personality.

The resurgence of interest in Rosalind Franklin’s life, career and contributions comes at a time when basic science education is under siege from budget cuts despite the recognition of its importance to our future. Perhaps knowing her story will inspire teenage boys and girls who are passionate about science to pursue their interests despite all obstacles. Perhaps it will also inspire policymakers to remember that skills and intelligence require opportunity to grow. Perhaps male scientists will remember to open the door to female colleagues without outside pressure.

What’s certain is that knowing her story is better than ignoring it.

Suggested reading about Rosalind Franklin: – check out the cool video too!


To Infinity and Florida…

NASA/Fletcher Hildreth July 8, 2011

Yesterday, Roberto and I ended our writing workshop just in time to watch the liftoff of the shuttle Atlantis via an online stream from NASA TV, which did not exist as an Internet portal in 1981. So much has changed!

The shuttle program has been an exciting era of American innovation. Reusable space vehicles were the stuff of science fiction until Columbia’s second flight. Countless inventions designed to solve technical problems in space travel have become part of our everyday lives. We suffered two national tragedies when things did not go as they should have for the crews of Challenger and Columbia. Many of us still remember the shock of losing these heroes, but our intrepid engineers doggedly solved the problems and carried on in their memory.

As Americans, we often celebrate individual triumphs, but ultimately we know it’s all about the team. Philip Scott Anderson offers a glimpse through photographs of the many technicians who made this program possible. They never get the attention our heroic and glamorous astronauts receive but their work makes space flight possible. has assembled a photo gallery of Atlantis being built back in 1982.

Unfortunately, thousands of jobs are disappearing with the end of the shuttle program. There may be a local transition to commercial space travel or other exciting endeavors eventually, but it’s tough going at the moment for many families. Purdue University has jumped into the Space Coast vacuum with ‘strategic doing’ consultations to help the community take its next steps towards the future. A few months ago, Sam Knight wrote a piece about the impact of the shuttle program and its closing on Brevard County, Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

“After almost three decades, the retirement of the three surviving shuttles—Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour—is also the retirement of a set of American certainties. No one knows what is coming next.”

NASA has plans for visiting asteroids and Mars within the next decade or so. In the meantime private companies will be flying astronauts and supplies into space. We might even see space tourism emerge as a growth industry instead of a fringe pursuit. For all those bemoaning the outsourcing of manned space travel, keep in mind that our now beloved shuttles faced an uphill battle just to exist. In Beam Me Out of this Deathtrap, Scotty: 5…4…3…2…1 Goodbye, Columbia, Gregg Easterbrook covered the technical challenges contentious beginnings of the program back in 1980, a year before the first liftoff.

“The only way to find out about something as big and balky as Columbia, [former astronaut Richard] Cooper says, is to launch the thing and see what happens.”

American optimism powered the space program as much as the brains and sweat of countless engineers, scientists and technicians. There is much hand wringing about what comes next in our journey, but Darryl C. Owens observes that the shuttle has changed us here at home by opening its doors to astronauts who also happened to be minorities and women.

“Ultimately, history may judge the space shuttle program on the number of miles or days logged in space. However, the program’s most transformative legacy lies in the number of youngsters who were encouraged to shoot for the stars after watching someone like them blast into space.”

I could get lost in this topic all day, but it’s too gorgeous out. To read more about the space shuttle and its impact, check out the official NASA archives. For more about the future of spaceflight, read Mike Wall’s posting from Cape Canaveral about NASA’s plans.

Editor's Note

It’s All Barbara’s Fault…

…or actually Joan’s.

I’d been tossing around the concept of this blog for a few weeks when I sat down yesterday morning with coffee and a copy of  the June 2010 Smithsonian. New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella contributed a great profile about Barbara Morgan which explores the photographer behind the iconic image of Martha Graham dancing in Letter to the World. The picture is also called The Kick… you can look at it in the Smithsonian article but you’ve likely seen it many times. It was used as part of the design for the commemorative stamp in honor of Graham and probably in every high school history text book that bothers to mention American art in the twentieth century.

The great writing of the article hints at a brilliant, temperamental artist unafraid to bend others to her will for the sake of art. She labored alongside luminaries like Graham and Georgia O’Keefe but her life and work remain in the shadows. I wondered why, and I wanted to do something about it.

A web search yielded very little, though apparently if you name your daughter Barbara Morgan, she’s going to do something interesting because I also learned about an astronaut and a country music songwriter. A visit to my local library also turned up a civil rights leader by the same name, but no biography about the woman who co-founded Aperture magazine.

I did find a Wikipedia biography that cites actual books but omits the fact that she and her husband had at least one child, a fact I gleaned from their grandson’s gift of some of her work to UMassAmherst. Kendra Greene has written a nice summary of Morgan’s accomplishments that museums and galleries apparently use freely.

All that is lovely, but I wonder what it was like dragging around a Leica in the thirties and forties… and what she would think of our digital world. I’m hoping to visit the Library of Congress and read some of what Morgan herself wrote in Aperture and for her various books. I’ll keep you posted…