Friday, March 25, 2011

Chapter 2: Don't Call Her Rosy

Whew! It's been awhile since my last post regarding Women's Herstory Month. Since our last excursion into achievements of women in math and science, I have been bogged down with grading papers, outlining and executing sufficiently engaging lessons to teenagers, completing my final Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA; or Total Pain in the A_ _) for my credential program, and not getting enough sleep.

Just to give you an idea of how unkempt this has made me, I had to refer to a facebook post to see the last time I showered. My optimistic guess was Wednesday. It was Tuesday evening. (It is now Friday; not to worry, dear Boyfriend, I did shower this morning.) I stand by the claim that can only be indicative of pure genius. Case in point:

What does all of this have to do with Herstory Month? Well it is indeed my own story, but it is also a story common amongst many geniuses or achievers that our work supercedes cleanliness. Who wants to shower everyday, anyways?

This entry is dedicated to one of those hard-working women, whose hours spent working in a dark and poorly-ventilated university laboratory should have been rewarded with a weekend spa getaway (and a Nobel Prize) -- instead she was only rewarded with obscurity. The stolen work of Rosalind Franklin made a name for James Watson and Francis Crick, and only recently have people begun to pay her lip service for her contribution to molecular science and DNA:

Chapter 2: Don't Call her Rosy

Rosalind Elsie Franklin came from London and was a very strange child. She did not express a creative side and was only interested in that which was empirical and logical; in school she excelled in math, science and sports. She was like a little adult, and did NOT enjoy being called nicknames like Rosy. It was probably not known at the time but Franklin was most certainly half-Vulcan, too.

As a university student, Franklin studied chemistry and quickly became an expert in the field of x-ray crystallography. Upon receiving her PhD from Cambridge in 1945 for her work on the porosity of coal, she continued research in France where she was treated as an equal amongst male colleagues, something that she rarely experienced in England.

When opportunity struck to do research on the structure of DNA at King's College, she leapt at the opportunity but also realized it would mean she would not be working under the best conditions. Her laboratory was set up in a leaky basement in the Biophysics department and despite her credentials and meticulousness at working under a microscope, she was given only one assistant, Maurice Wilkins. Franklin and Wilkins worked many hours interpreting the crystallography of the structure of DNA, but they were not the only ones seeking the secrets of its structure. Over at Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick were using models and their knowledge of molecular cell biology to attempt a replica of DNA. There was no friendly collaboration between the two institutions as the field was very competitive -- whoever discovered the structure of DNA would surely attain fame and a place among other science immortals like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.

As time wore on and Franklin continued her research with her assistant, Wilkins grew weary. He felt that they had surely acquired an accurate picture of the structure of DNA implying a double-helix, but Franklin wanted more research to solidify their hypotheses. Crick knew that they were working in the same area he and his partner were, and inquired them about it. While Franklin was hesitant to share much with him -- she either wanted to be certain of her claims, or Crick had rubbed her the wrong way upon their first encounter (the whole "Rosy" thing) -- Wilkins willingly shared the image. He did this without her permission or knowledge after the fact and this remains a topic of controversy in the science community.

The rest is pretty much history: Franklin returned to her work without viewing it as a great loss -- so long as the knowledge had been uncovered she felt she had done her part (but for the sake of argument I'm certain she was just a *little bit* pissed). She used her knowledge of x-ray crystallography and experience examining the structure of DNA to study the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, and RNA.

Francis, Crick and Wilkins jointly won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA a few years after Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. Watson penned an account of his and Crick's "discovery" of the structure of DNA entitled The Double Helix. In 1987 a film version was made, "The Race for the Double Helix," which contains a scene of Wilkins giving Crick the well-known Photo 51 indicating the double helix structure.

So, how do I feel about all of this? The angry Feminazi in me wants to go on a tirade about how MEN have the need to control everything and MEN are responsible for this figurative weight on our shoulders and MEN just need to be a little more open to collaboration and consent, dammit.

But there is another voice in me that says that people's shit gets stolen all the time. Who invented Calculus -- Newton or Leibniz? Who created pyramids first -- Aztecs or Egyptians? In "Race for the Double Helix" there is a poignant moment after Photo 51 has been taken and Francis and Crick have made their DNA model, and Franklin is examining it. The look on her face is not one of spite but of engaged curiosity and recognition.

Recognition that they have finally created a visual structure for that which cannot be seen. They have finally placed names and chemicals and combinations for that which makes every living organism unique as well as a part of something whole.

They have finally created another way for me to fail that Chemistry test!

Celebrating the [too-short] life and amazing work of Rosalind Franklin is just one facet of Women's History Month and the greater subject of feminism. To take a step back and not be angry, or lose sleep over disadvantages that have occurred in the past to women making a name for themselves amongst male colleagues is the right path towards striving for equality.

(I know this ended abruptly but I have a yoga class to get to!)


  1. The angry Feminazi in you should also point out that often, men steal their stuff from other men, and women benefit half the time. No matter who figured out and named Calculus, it's women and men who use it. Great blog!

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  3. Great post! I heard the name Rosalind Franklin before but knew precious little about her (presumably because of the reasons you detailed). I believe every word you wrote and my brief Wikipedia research confirmed it. I have no doubt that there exists a laundry list of notable achievements by women that were robbed and credited to men because that's the way we rolled back then. Things have progressed but we obviously still have a long way to go.

    The fact that she died at age 37 from cancer (likely due to the constant X-Ray exposure) is the most horribly depressing aspect of all.