Throughout Women's History Month, we want to continue to be intentional in honoring the ways women have shaped our understandings of health and wellness today. Furthermore, we also need to acknowledge how often women are wrongfully removed from history to reinforce a toxic male-centric narrative. It's time for us to make sure that women receive the recognition that they deserve. Today, we'd like to focus on Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist and crystallographer, who first captured the helical structure of DNA in 1951, a fundamental discovery about the building blocks of life.. However, society didn’t rightfully attribute this accomplishment to her until very recently. Why? Unsurprisingly, her scientific contributions were overlooked because of institutional sexism.
Franklin frequently encountered sexism throughout her scientific career. While she was working toward her PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University, studying crystallography and X-ray diffraction specifically, she experienced discrimination from her male colleagues. In fact, when she first arrived, Franklin was expected to use antiquated X-ray equipment instead of the modern technology granted to her male counterparts. With the assistance of a graduate student named Raymond Gosling, she was able to advocate for and acquire better equipment, but the disparity in quality shouldn’t have ever been there. To make matters worse, Franklin was told to leave the building for lunch since women weren't allowed in the university cafeteria. Ridiculous, right? Amidst all of this, Franklin became an accomplished scientist studying the structure of DNA.
In January 1951, Rosalind Franklin, with Raymond Gosling as her assistant, used crystallography and X-ray diffraction technologies to photograph DNA structure. Franklin’s photograph of the helical form became the well-renowned “Photograph 51.” However, after Franklin and Gosling took this photograph, one of Franklin’s notoriously sexist colleagues named Maurice Wilkins took Photograph 51 without Franklin’s consent and shared it with competing scientist, James Watson. Using Rosalind Franklin's photo, Watson and Crick published a paper on their supposed findings on March 7, 1953 and ultimately received the Nobel Prize in 1962, not crediting Wilkins or Franklin. Until today, James Watson and Francis Crick are often still wrongfully credited for discovering the model for DNA. It’s amazing how much a sexist man is willing to do to try to erase a woman’s legacy when he’s threatened by her brilliance.
Despite this clear and unfair snub, Rosalind Franklin continued to shape the scientific community. Transitioning away from studying DNA, she followed up with pioneering work in studying the tobacco mosaic and polioviruses. Unfortunately, while developing her cutting edge research, Rosalind Franklin fell ill and died from ovarian cancer when she was only 37 years old.
Now, we are all finally centering Rosalind Franklin in the DNA and life science narrative. In fact, there's an organization called the Rosalind Franklin Society that uplifts and sheds a spotlight on women who continue to make profound contributions to the development of life sciences at-large. Let's prioritize the women who made the contributions throughout history but were wrongfully kept out of the spotlight. Let’s make sure Rosalind Franklin and others like her receive the recognition they deserve so that we may support the women in STEM that are still facing sexism today.