Rosalind Franklin and the Continuing Challenges for Women in Science

In 1962, Francis Crick, along with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize. They were awarded for their work on nucleic acids, particularly their mapping of the structure of DNA, a vital breakthrough in the understanding of the chemical building block of life. Last week, on April 11, Crick’s Nobel Prize was purchased at an auction by a bio-technology company for about $2 million.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin

Whenever Crick’s name, along with Watson and Wilkins’s, is brought up, it inevitably renews discussion about Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was an accomplished scientist and researcher, and her own work on the structure of DNA was almost certainly a key influence on the work of Watson and Crick. But when the Nobel Prize was handed out, Franklin (who died of ovarian cancer years earlier, in 1958) and her contributions were not mentioned. Many observers, then and today, saw this as an injustice, and insult was added to injury by James Watson’s widely read memoir The Double Helix, which portrayed Franklin antagonistically and diminished her work as a scientist. (Accusations that Watson’s book was sexist are just a few of the controversies the geneticist has found himself embroiled in- in 2007, Watson was widely criticized for stating his belief that people of African descent were genetically less intelligent than others.)

Today, Franklin’s contribution is recognized, and she has been granted many posthumous honors, including various fellowships and institutions named after her. But she never received a Nobel Prize, what many consider the proper recognition for her most groundbreaking work, and as such, has been become a symbol of the sexism and discrimination many women suffer in the world of science.

A photo of the structure of DNA, taken by Franklin

A photo of the structure of DNA, taken by Franklin

Though there have been numerous female Nobel Prize winners in the sciences–most famously Marie Curie’s win for Physics in 1911, and Ada Yonath, Elizabeth Blackburn, and Carol Greider all winning awards in 2009–science is still a largely male dominated field. And new research suggests this is especially true in Western countries, such as the U.S. and Britain. Experts suggest this is largely a cultural problem: women are not encouraged to pursue scientific careers and interests. There are many efforts being made by various educational institutions to encourage more young women to pursue science (the subject was even a subplot on popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory), but challenges still exist. In 2005, just eight years ago, Harvard president Larry Summers gave a speech in which he claimed that there were fewer women in science because of “innate” differences between the sexes. That Summers was widely criticized for the speech is a positive development, but the fact that he even felt comfortable making such statements suggests that the sexism Rosalind Franklin struggled against is still troubling us today.

To learn more about Rosalind Franklin, and her contributions to science and our understanding of DNA, please check out Rosalind Franklin and the Structure of Life by Jane Polcovar (ISBN# 978-1-59935-022-6) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. And be sure to look up our Profiles in Science series for biographies about other fascinating women in science, including Marie Curie and Caroline Herschel.

-Josh Barrer, Associate Editor

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. WOMEN RULE!!!

  2. […] me voy a la cama que tengo un libro alucinante a la mitad, ¿te suena Rosalind Franklin? Otro día te cuento, su historia te va a […]

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