Rosalind Franklin made one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century, but she died without receiving much recognition. Her work influenced everything we know about biology and led to the creation of entire fields of study, but she did not receive a Nobel Prize. Instead, her male lab assistant did.
That last statement is a little unfair. By the time Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA, Franklin had been dead for four years. The Nobel Prize, which is intended as a grant for future work, is not given posthumously. However, it’s important to note that these three men admitted ten years after her death that their accomplishment would have been impossible without the information they stole from Franklin.
Picture DNA in your head for a moment. You see the double helix? It was Franklin who first discovered this pattern in X-ray photographs she took in 1953. Her student-slash-lab partner Wilkins would later, without her knowledge, show these photos to Watson and Crick, who were working on a model of DNA themselves. The day Franklin published her findings, Watson and Crick — in the same journal, no less — published their own, which were based on her work. She was forced to add a handwritten comment about their work to her manuscript before it was submitted. She, of course, was not credited in the men’s paper.
Ten years after Franklin’s death, in 1968, Watson published The Double Helix, in which he admitted that Franklin did not know he and Crick were using her work. Ever the class-act, Watson also made several derisive comments about her, from her refusal to wear lipstick to her hard-headedness, always referring to her as “Rosy.”
It’s hard enough to be a woman in science. Franklin had to contend with worse — she was a Jewish woman in science in a pre-Friedan era. How much more kickass can you get? She used her brains and determination in a decade when the ideal woman was a passive homebody. What’s more, she accomplished this before her untimely death at the age of 37. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, probably as a result of long-term exposure to X-ray radiation — the very method she used to make her discoveries. Tragically, Rosalind Franklin was killed by work she would never see recognized.
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