Everyone knows a little something about Rosalind Franklin, whose hundredth birthday it would be today. Some may have little sense of her beyond the belief that she was cheated out of a Nobel Prize by the dastardly actions of Maurice Wilkins at Kings London and, even more, by the cavalier attitude of Jim Watson aided and abetted by Francis Crick. But her life is much more interesting than that mythological potted history would imply. It also has strong resonances today, with women in science still in a minority and many – both men and women – feeling that there is a hard-core establishment, predominantly pale, male and stale which controls funding and hence researchers’ lives.
Also hidden in the story of how her own X-ray photograph was shown to others, enabling them to solve the double helical structure of DNA before she herself could, is any insight into how the science progressed to enable such a stunningly improved photograph to be taken. The way of science in the research lab is not at all the same as the kind of science school children encounter. It can therefore seem mysterious and too often told as the ‘heroic’ story in which one person’s efforts suddenly and miraculously lead to a Eureka breakthrough. Think of the ‘myth’ around Isaac Newton watching an apple fall and immediately coming up with the idea of gravity. Thinking of science in this way does the practice of science a disservice and is unlikely to encourage children to think more seriously about what needs to be done, why they might want to do science themselves, or to reassure the public about the validity of scientists’ claims. Unfortunately, too often, this is how the history of science is presented and, by extrapolation, the idea that that still applies, despite the importance of collaborative team science and interdisciplinarity. In the 21st century we are more than ever dependent on science, as recent months have proved, and the trust and confidence of the public in the scientific endeavour is crucial.
Too often science is seen as an arid landscape, where people, emotion and creativity have no real place. This is so wrong, so wide of the mark of what a life in science is actually like. The concept of the lone scientist, typically in a white lab coat and quite likely holding test-tubes containing some noxious smoking liquid, does not equate to reality. We are part of a flourishing network of committed, cooperative individuals, interspersed with a few real jerks. (Many people would throw Jim Watson into that last category.) We have our highs and lows during the course of our daily life just like any other kind of worker. We are as interesting or as boring as those in any other profession. There are many challenges to be addressed on the way to being entitled to call yourself a professor, many places where the aspirant may fall by the wayside or lose motivation. However, the bottom line is that working in science is just like the rest of life, the tensions and pleasures of working with others in a scientific laboratory are not really that different from working in an office.
Rosalind Franklin never got to be a professor – in fact far fewer scientists rose to those dizzy heights back in the 1950s than now – and her life was cut miserably short by cancer. During her relatively brief flowering she encountered many obstacles: she was a woman, she was a Jew, and for a number of years she was surrounded by people with whom she felt she had little in common to name three factors that had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of her science. During her life she did have time to demonstrate the versatility of scientists, moving between fields – from the structure of coal to DNA, albeit using X-ray diffraction in both cases – another feature that is often overlooked in the public’s view of experts who are imagined as dedicating their entire life to a single topic, as they beaver away in their alleged ivory tower.
One can tell Rosalind Franklin’s life story in many ways. To Jim Watson she
“was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning if she had taken even a mild interest in clothes”,
to quote from The Double Helix. He appears to have been as just misogynistic then as in more recent utterances. However, others also found Franklin difficult, just as she also found many of her colleagues. A schoolfriend of hers was quoted as saying
“She was straightforward, even forthright, and not inclined to be diplomatic.”
In adult life, in different labs, her behaviour which, in a man might have been hailed as confident and assertive, in her was seen as aggressive and unattractive. That parsing of assertive compared with aggressive is one that women still face today.
What I find most interesting, when reading some of the key books about this seminal period when Franklin, Wilkins, Crick and Watson were all interacting, is the comparison not of personalities, but of approaches to resolving the structure of DNA. To Franklin, the model building of Watson and Crick seemed child-like, playing with toys. For her it was the detailed, thorough analysis of Paterson functions that was required to interpret her beautiful X-ray diffraction patterns. Crick described her in his own memoir, That Mad Pursuit, as lacking panache. He explained this by “she felt that a woman must show herself to be fully professional.” Or, as Brenda Maddox expressed it in her biography The Dark Lady of Science
“Rosalind had been trained, as a child, as a Paulina [a student at St Paul’s School for Girls], as an undergraduate, as a scientist, never to overstate the case, never to go beyond hard evidence. An outrageous leap of the imagination would have been as out of character as running up an overdraft or wearing a red strapless dress.”
Watson had none of these inhibitions, nor did Crick. The first chapter in Watson’s book The Double Helix starts with the sentence “I have never seen Francis in a modest mood”. They may have been briefly embarrassed – and apparently were – when Franklin pointed out the fundamental mistake regarding the level of hydration of DNA they had made in their penultimate model, but it did not stop their model building and imagination. You might call it panache, or confidence to blag their way through. Still, that gender differential between the stereotypical solid 2.1 sort of woman who writes essays with reams of evidence but allegedly no originality, and the ‘brilliant’ man who writes a wonderful, unsubstantiated account and gets a 1st, persists. There are many contributing factors to the well-documented gender attainment gap at university, particularly in essay-writing subjects. As a Cambridge University Student Union report put it
“When it came to producing work within the arts and humanities, many women respondents talked about a style of essay writing – fast-paced, aggressive, and argumentative for argument’s sake – that they felt was valorised over more considered and expansive pieces, and that women in general found more difficult, or were less inclined, to write.”
As we celebrate the centenary of Rosalind Franklin’s birth, we may reflect that our education system still facilitates a gendered assessment of what is valued; this is supported by the difference in success rates for UKRI grants (and their size). We cannot tell if different educational practices would have enabled the needed leap of imagination for Franklin to construct the double helical structure without deriving it through detailed analysis, or if her character and upbringing would inevitably have held her back from model-building. She knew what she could do well, and worked flat out with those tools. She was someone who undoubtedly faced multiple hurdles by virtue of being a determined woman surrounded by men who thought of her as ‘Rosy’ (Watson), ‘a fool’ (according to Peter Pauling), ‘incompetent in interpreting Xray pictures’ (Watson),and that she ‘looked beautiful when she was angry’. Unfortunately, for many women in science today, those or similar epithets may still be tossed in their direction as they are judged unfavourably, unreasonably and unfairly.