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  • Writer's pictureSoumna Nema

Some Sexist Scientists

James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery of the Double Helical Structure of DNA. Here's a "behind-the-scenes" story of this accomplishment that just isn't told often enough...

A woman named Rosalind Elise Franklin, who James Watson describes as a "plain dressing, belligerent and emotional scientist who was unable to interpret her own lab data" in his book "The Double Helix" which was published 10 years after she died of cancer, was a remarkable scientist whose work laid the foundations of modern microbiology and biotechnology and led to advancements that are vital to humankind today. She had earned her Ph.D. with a thesis on the porosity of coal and her research enabled the development of gas masks for the British in World War II.

But sadly, her game-changing contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA was never acknowledged during her lifetime. She passed away 4 years before the Nobel was awarded to her. The Nobel would have been hers twice, but her work on the structure of viruses gave the prize to her colleague Aaron Klug in 1982. Only if she had been recognized for her work while she was alive...

She had earned her Ph.D. from Cambridge. She was an expert in X-ray Crystallography, a skill that enabled her to capture Photograph 51 during her time working at King's College on the structure of DNA, which scientists of her time were competing to discover.

Photograph 51

Photograph 51, captured by her in early 1952, confirmed the hunch that many Scientists had—DNA had a double-helical structure. The Photograph took 100 hours to capture and the math involved in arriving at the desired conclusion would take a year. Franklin continued her work. But, a fellow scientist she had clashed with, Maurice Wilkins, who believed that Franklin was hired to assist him, took Photograph 51 and showed it to Watson and Crick behind Franklin's back.

Watson and Crick were then able to quickly finish their work as this Photo was their "missing puzzle piece" (which they hadn't been able to find on their own) and published their work in the British scientific weekly, called Nature, on April 25, 1953. Franklin, who, by then, had successfully completed her calculations and come to the same conclusions, published her own findings in the same journal that published her work after Watson and Crick's (order wise), making her research seem derivative of Watson and Crick's, like PostScript, instead of what it was. It was what had led them to their discovery, which got them the Nobel prize.

Franklin had never known that Watson and Crick had seen her work. She died in 1958 at the age of 37.

Her colleagues' jealousy and sexism-driven descriptions of her were proven to be false, thanks to the work of her biographers who investigated her life, bringing more attention to her achievements and contributions, and giving her some of the credit she should've gotten in the first place.

Even now, in 2020, this sadly serves as a great example of how women have always been looked down on, given less credit, and even paid less than they should be for the same quality and quantity work they do as their male counterparts. Women are subjected to bias against them in almost every professional field. The disparity between the kind of efforts— industrious, social, and emotional—that a woman has to put in for her work to be viewed as professional in contrast to a man is still large enough to fight for women's equality in the workplace every single day.

It is sad.

But it is the truth.

And it is a truth both women and men need to fight against, together and equally, in order to embody what this had been about all along...



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