The Mother of DNA

Camran Lateef 12 AICE P

Biology students in schools around the world are taught how James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, and it is touted as one of the most important scientific discoveries ever (it even won them a Nobel Prize in 1962). However, looking back on who contributed the most to this discovery suggests that the recognition should have gone to Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist whose work Watson and Crick used to develop their model of the structure of DNA. Systemic sexism in the scientific community and attempts to discredit her meant that until recently, Franklin received no recognition for her immense contributions.

As a woman scientist in the 1950s, Rosalind Franklin incessantly faced unfair treatment from her male peers. For example, when working at King’s College in London, which was where she made significant progress in finding the structure of DNA, she was called patronising nicknames such as ‘Rosie’ by her colleagues. Her relationship with Watson and Crick also exemplifies how unjustly she was treated: Watson called her “incompetent” to her face when approaching her to collaborate, and in his book ‘Double Helix’, he goes out of his way to slander her intellect.

However, despite the odds being stacked against her, her work was groundbreaking and defied the sexist attitudes in the scientific community. She made several key advances in her field including the discovery of Type A and Type B DNA. Arguably her most paramount discovery occurred in May 1952, when Franklin developed ‘Photo 51’, the sharpest image of DNA ever obtained at the time, which indicated that DNA had a double-helix structure.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s career was still unfairly limited by explicit misogyny. Soon after she developed Photo 51, Maurice Wilkins, the Deputy-Director of her lab at King’s College secretly shared Photo 51 and Franklin’s other unpublished findings on DNA with Watson and Crick, who used her work without her knowledge, and then failed to give her credit when presenting their “discoveries”. In all, it took Watson and Crick only six weeks to determine the structure by using two years of Franklin’s work. To make matters even worse, when both Franklin’s and Watson and Crick’s identical findings were published in a medical journal, Watson and Crick’s were published first, making it seem like Franklin just confirmed what Watson and Crick “discovered”, even though in reality Franklin performed most of the difficult work.
Despite these hardships, Franklin remained strong in the face of adversity and adamant on using science to better the world; she even made crucial contributions to discovering the structure of viruses before she tragically passed away at age 37 in 1958. Her tale lives on to demonstrate that gender does not define ability in any field. However, the fact that biology students are not taught about Franklin’s work illustrates how much the sexist attitudes of the 1950’s and 60’s still pervade society today and have influenced the education system.

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