Credit for Demystifying DNA Denies One Woman’s Role

This misogyny is no surprise to an octogenarian Jewish feminist scientist.

Fifty years since the discovery of the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin has emerged from obscurity. An upper class English Jew, she was a brilliant experimental scientist, and an outstanding crystallographer Her superb X-ray photos of DNA, made in 1951 when she was a researcher at Kings College, London, were a critical key to the discovery that DNA is a double helix. This landmark discovery, which provided the explanation for how genetic traits are transferred, led to the Nobel Prize for James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. Rosalind Franklin, their unacknowledged colleague, had died in 1958 of ovarian cancer—age 37.

Franklin is the subject of a recent biography by Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, and a documentary based on the book aired on public television this April. Maddox’s outstanding book, thoroughly researched, is a finely detailed portrait of a talented, passionate, ethical human being who suffered indignities inflicted by misogynist co-workers, perhaps exacerbated by Franklin’s own strong personality. They took her X-ray photos of DNA without her knowledge—that is, they stole them—thus gaining for themselves evidence crucial to their hypothesis about the structure of DNA.

I have just reread James Watson’s The Double Helix, his self-centered 1953 account of the process of the DNA discovery, and was still outraged, as I was when I first en countered it, by his patronizing, flippant description of Franklin as a dowdy 31 -year-old with “never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, wearing dresses that showed all the imagination of an English blue-stocking adolescent.” He expresses no guilt at having used her work without her permission. Only in an epilogue doc he try to make some amends. His latest memoir, Genes, Girls, and Gamow (2001), still does not credit her contributions. (And can you imagine a woman scientist using the title “Genes and Guys “?)

Women in the sciences, especially in Watson’s era, usually suffered outright sexism and, if they were Jewish, anti-Semitism as well. I know from experience. I was born two years after Rosalind Franklin, and was the only woman in my class at the University of North Carolina to take a B.S. degree in chemistry. I’d been inspired by my remarkable father, who urged my sister and me to go into a practical, lifelong profession; since he was technically oriented, here commended the sciences. My mother, too, was very supportive. But I had earlier applied to Penn State College as a chemical engineering major and had received a letter from the dean saying that this was “an in appropriate major for a woman.”

After graduation from North Carolina, I worked during World War II at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. In order to study the blood of malarial service men hospitalized there, I used a large, newly developed instrument, the electrophoresis apparatus for which the developer, Arne Tiselius, received the Nobel Prize in 1947. One day, my boss appeared at the door of my lab accompanied by three visiting Russian scientists, and I heard: “Such a little girl working with such a big machine!” His tone and words were so commonplace that I wasn’t even offended—he was just articulating what was the prevailing male attitude.

I received a doctorate in the history of science and science education at Columbia’s Teachers College in 1958 when my daughter and son were 7 and 11. I had been the only woman in our fellowship group of six. Later, in my career as a college professor, I sometimes was taunted and patronized, even after I had attained the rank of full professor One incident sticks in my mind: at a faculty meeting, the chairman of the biology department, during a discussion about the necessity for laboratory work to accompany a science course for non-majors, pointed to me, and said, “Ask her. She knows all about kitchens.”

Since the inception of the Nobel Prize in 1901, about 300men, but only nine women, have received the prestigious awards in science. In her 2001 book, Nobel Prize Women in Science, Sharon Bertsch Mc Grayne lists 14—the nine who won, plus five who should have. Of the five, three are Jewish: Lisa Meitner (1878-1968), who made major contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission; Emmy Noether (1882-1935), the German mathematician; and—no surprise— Rosalind Franklin.