On this day in 1920, the great British physical chemist Rosalind Franklin was born. If you haven’t heard of her, it is simply because she’s a woman. Really. The sexism against her was unbelievable. Although Francis Crick said that her X-ray diffraction work was critical to his Nobel Prize winning discovery of the structure of DNA, the Nobel committee didn’t even mention her. What’s more, Crick’s partner Watson made repeated attacks on her as a scientist and generally minimized her contributions to the science—after she had died, of course.
Born to an extremely influential Jewish family in Britain, she showed academic greatness at an early age. Then she went to Cambridge where she received Second Class Honors. She did not receive a Bachelor’s degree, because at that time, Cambridge didn’t give them to women. It did allow her to go on and do more advanced work. She eventually got her PhD for work on the physical chemistry (especially porosity) of coal. This was during World War II, and the work had special military applications like coal’s use in gas masks. What’s perhaps most interesting about this, is that it had nothing much to do with her later work.
After the war, she got a job working with X-ray crystallographer Jacques Mering in France. She applied the new techniques to coal and published a number of significant papers. But the main thing was that she became an expert in the use of X-ray diffraction on complex organic compounds. So in 1951, she was brought to King’s College London where she started her work on the structure of DNA. Also working there was Maurice Wilkins, who would go on to share the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick. Wilkins and Franklin did not get along, partly because of the usual academic politics, but also because they were such different people.
I wish that I could explain to you the work these people were doing. Sadly, I can’t. To begin with, organic chemistry is still very much a mystery to me. And embarrassingly, even though I’ve done some work with X-ray crystallography, I never really understood it. Basically, you bombard an object with X-rays and look at how the object changes the X-rays’ directions. This allows you to infer the structure of the object. But really, stuff like this has always felt very much like black magic to me. So I have a great respect (and awe) for those who pioneered the work.
But about that sexism. The truth is that by all accounts, Franklin was a difficult person. But this is hardly unusual. I’ve met more than my fair share of great scientists and as a group they are arrogant and impatient—generally not the kind of people you want at cocktail parties. But had Franklin been a man, everyone would have just accepted this. But she was a woman and as a result, she wasn’t seen as just another difficult genius, but someone with “problems.” And in addition to everything else, Watson minimized her work. Still, had she lived, even Watson admitted that she should have shared the Nobel Prize with the three men.
Unfortunately, at the age of 35, she was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer. She got treatment for it and continued to work right up to two weeks before her death at the age of 37. At that point, she was working on the polio virus. She did an amazing amount of outstanding work in her short lifetime.
Happy birthday Rosalind Franklin!