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

Happy International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!

Today, nations around the world celebrate the progress women have made throughout history. According to InternationalWomensDay.com, “Annually on 8 March, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements.”

Here at Morgan Reynolds, we recognize that women have played important roles in the development of our society, which is why several of our books are about some of the most influential women in history.

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In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to be his secretary of labor.

Emily Keller, author of Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member, wrote, “As a young woman in college, Frances Perkins considered becoming an actress or a teacher. However, women’s reform movements of the 1920s fired her imagination.”

When she accepted her position as the secretary of labor, Perkins said, “The overwhelming argument and thought which made me do it in the end in spite of personal difficulties was the realization that the door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and that I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant to sit in the high seat.”

Keller wrote, “A woman has not yet been elected president of the United States, but that will likely change someday. When it does, she will owe her election, at least in part, to the hard work and dedication of Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. ”

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Dr. Padma Venkatraman, author of Profiles in Mathematics: Women Mathematicians, wrote that women have also influenced the world of mathematics.

[M]any women–though not as well-known by history–aided in the development of mathematics….[They] were born at times when women were expected to get only a minimal education. Furthermore, even when their passion prevailed and they were able to attain the knowledge they sought, they were often unable to find careers in their chosen field, blocked by men and the prejudices of their time…. With time and determination they succeeded, creating works that influenced people’s thinking about mathematics and the universe; in doing so, they not only achieved their own goals, but helped to forge the modern world.

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There were even women in the sky at the beginning of the twentieth century. Wanda Langley, author  of Women of the Wind: Early Women Aviators wrote, “Early planes were rickety, open-cockpit contraptions, and daredevils flocked to them in droves. Many of those groundbreaking pilots lost their lives to the sky, even at they inspired others to take to the air. Not a few of these brave aviators were women.”

Women have contributed to the development of many fields. Find out more by taking a look at Morgan Reynolds’s biographies of some of these influential women:

Frances Perkins: First Woman Cabinet Member  (ISBN 9781931798914)                                                     

Profiles in Mathematics: Women Mathematicians (ISBN 9781599350912)                                                                                      

Women of the Wind: Early Women Aviators (ISBN 9781931798815)                                                                                             

Cleopatra: Ruler of Egypt (ISBN 9781599350356)                                                                                                                                       

Profiles in Mathematics: Sophie Germain (ISBN 9781599350622)                                                                                                               

New Elements: The Story of Marie Curie (ISBN 9781599350233)                                                                                                           

Profiles in Fashion: Vera Wang (ISBN 9781599351506)                                                                                                                         

Supreme Court Justices: Sonia Sotomayor (ISBN 9781599351568)                                                                                                     

Profiles in Fashion: Kate Spade (ISBN 9781599351544)                                                                                                                                 

From China to America: The Story of Amy Tan (ISBN 9781599351384) 

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

Published in: on March 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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