In today’s Google Doodle, the side-profile of the woman who forms the second ‘O’ seems like a cute caricature of a sixties housewife in America. She’s got a curly bob and a string of pearls around her neck. But if you follow through the rest of the word, a straight line points its way from her eyes to strands of DNA. This was no ordinary woman.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin would have turned 93 today. She was a molecular biologist and a biophysicist, but her life was more unique than just her staggering achievements in the field of science. Rosalind, who was British, is best-known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix.
Rosalind’s work in DNA was dogged by controversy.
After studying at Cambridge and spending three productive years working in a Paris laboratory, Rosalind Franklin returned to Britain to work in John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London as a research associate in the early fifties. It was here that she crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins, a man who would (along with two others) go on to win the Nobel Prize for their work on the double-helix model of DNA.
Rosalind’s role in the discovery of the double-helix model has been much debated. Franklin and Wilkin were part of different research groups, though both were working on DNA. Wilkin gave Rosalind charge of the DNA project after months of it having no one at the helm. But she was only ever given credit as a technical assistant, even though she was a peer of Wilkin’s.
In another example, Wilkins showed another scientist one of Franklin’s crystallographic portraits of DNA. The results of this went into the Nature magazine almost immediately, under the names of Wilkins and his fellow scientists. Rosalind was only credited under a supporting article.
The climate of the university was known for the sexism that was directed at female scientists in the fifties. Much later, at Cambridge, Francis Crick, Wilkin’s fellow scientist, acknowledged, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt- let’s say, apatronisingattitude towards her.”
Franklin was never nominated for aNobel Prize. She had died in 1958 and was ineligible for nomination to the Nobel Prize in 1962 which was subsequently awarded to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins in 1962.