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Sunday, 13 August 2017

My Heroes (42 ): Rosalind Franklin

This is also a series that I have ignored for a while. I started it eleven years ago....
The name of Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 - 1958) should be as well-known to us as those of James Watson and Frances Crick who were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the structure of DNA but it is not. She died at the tragically young age of 37 of ovarian cancer. That, however, is not the only tragedy in this story.
I like this picture of Rosalind as a young woman; actually she was only ever young.
Her inspirational work as a x-ray crystallographer had set Crick and Watson on the road to discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. They based their research on her earlier findings. They were awarded the Nobel Prize along with Maurice Wilkins in 1962 but the prize is never given posthumously so Rosalind was never properly recognised. It is a matter of conjecture whether she would have shared the award anyway; she was shamefully treated by her male colleagues at the time which was the norm in the 1950s. She was not a feminist and was not known to have complained about her lot. Maybe if she had been born after the war things may have been different. 
Franklin was born to a prominent Jewish family in Notting Hill, London in 1920 and excelled as a student, later studying at Cambridge University.
X-ray crystallography is the branch of science that is able to show the shape of objects at the atomic and molecular level. It was a famous photograph known as 'Photo 51', taken under her direction, that led to the the double helix discovery.
Photo 51
She is buried at Willesden Jewish cemetery in north London. (Where, incidentally the prayer hall has just been given Grade II listed status by English Heritage.) This is the inscription on her tombstone:

IN MEMORY OF

ROSALIND ELSIE FRANKLIN

מ' רחל בת ר' יהודה
DEARLY LOVED ELDER DAUGHTER OF
ELLIS AND MURIEL FRANKLIN
25TH JULY 1920 – 16TH APRIL 1958
SCIENTIST
HER RESEARCH AND DISCOVERIES ON
VIRUSES REMAIN OF LASTING BENEFIT
TO MANKIND
ת נ צ ב ה 
[Hebrew initials for "her soul shall be bound in the bundle of life"]

PS: I have just realised something that must have drawn me to Rosalind Franklin: she was born and died in the same years as my own mother who died of thyroid cancer which was untreatable in 1958 - and she looked like Rosalind!
I'm listening (appropriately for this post!) to the beautiful and very moving Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's opera Nabucco.
Click HERE to listen. The whole cast appear to be visibly moved by the event.

8 comments:

Hels said...

Great history, but so sad :(

The very clever Rosalind Franklin studied physics and chemistry at a good girls' school, something that would have been very unusual back then (early 1930s). And her major at uni in chemistry. So although I would never have chosen those sciences myself, I fully understand her desire to make a special career for herself.

My dear husband provided the following. Her interest in "applying X-ray diffraction to non-crystalline substances" ensured that Professor John Randall would want to bring Franklin to King’s College, in 1951! But that only lasted until 1953 when Rosalind moved instead to at Birkbeck College and produced lots of academic papers. She died in 1958, before Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962. So her timing was wrong healthwise, her gender was wrong and her research personality was very wrong :(

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - another bright lady - who got left at the fence ... by men, and by being ill - how much has humanity lost out by putting the lid on women ... thankfully she is being acknowledged now - desperate she died of ovarian cancer.

So sad to have the thought-link to your own mother ... thryoid cancer is such a terrible cancer to have ... I'm sorry to read about your mother - desperate. Fascinating to read about Rosalind though ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hels: She certainly chose a career path that that was very unusual for a woman at that time. Her personality may have worked against her as well; she is usually portrayed as 'prickly' or 'difficult'. If that is true it doesn't provided any excuse for how she was treated.

bazza said...

Hilary: You make a good point that her case was typical rather than an isolated one.
PS: I have been trying for years to cut down on exclamation marks but an invisible force takes me over (!).

Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, At least since the mid-19th century, many schools that have educated women had exemplified academic rigor and social responsibility, so there has been plenty of time for these dedicated women to have gained opportunity and reputation, yet there are so many cases like Rosalind Franklin who have contributed so much while relegated to the background.
--Jim

bazza said...

Jim: I think that even today there is a residue of this attitude at the more established UK universities. Things move forward at about the speed of continental drift!

Treey said...

A great look at the life of Rosalind Franklin.She lived her life in a different time to me but it was fascinating to read her story.

bazza said...

Treey: Hi, thanks for visiting. It does seem like a long time ago but it's still within living memory (for some!). Sadly, I believe the same thing could happen today.
I just tried to comment on your Elvis post but couldn't see how to!