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Franklin, Dr Rosalind Elsie

Category: Genius

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer.  She died in 1958 at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer. 

The Wikipedia account of her work is suitably detailed with many references, so we will not be duplicating this detail.  Instead, as we have done with others, we will concentrate on perhaps unknown or overlooked aspects of her life and her views on faith, service to humanity, the purpose of science and religion.

Overview of main discoveries

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, particularly Photo 51, while at King's College London, and for her discovery of the DNA double helix for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.  She has received virtually no recognition for her work and although there was no rule at that time against posthumous awards, the Nobel Committee made no posthumous nomination.

Perhaps of equal interest is that all the others working with her have received no recognition either.  In a rather late acknowledgement in 2003, the Royal Society of Chemistry declared King's College London as "National Historic Chemical Landmark" and placed a plaque on the wall near the entrance of the building, with the inscription:

 "Near this site Rosalind Franklin, ….   Raymond Gosling, Alexander Stokes and Herbert Wilson performed experiments that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. This work revolutionised our understanding of the chemistry behind life itself."

In other words, not only Rosalind but Raymond Gosling [see photo upper right], Alexander Stokes and Herbert Wilson have received no general recognition.  Even more bizarre is that many subsequent breakthroughs by people who are never mentioned in the history of DNA took place.  The first breakthrough was from Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl in 1958, who experimentally showed the DNA replication of a bacterium Escherichia coli. Now known as the Meselson–Stahl experiment, DNA was found to replicate into two double-stranded helices, with each helix having one of the original DNA strands.

Up until the Meselson–Stahl experiment in 1958 Watson and Crick's paper was simply an hypothesis based on Franklin’s discovery.   After some extremely unpleasant politics, she was compelled to move to Birkbeck College [of which more shortly]. Despite the fact that the move had been a vicious manoeuvre, Franklin led pioneering work at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses.  And then she died.   Her team member Aaron Klug continued her research, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.
Below about age 12, second from right, with her siblings (from left) Roland, David, Jenifer, and Colin.

Early career

US National Library of Medicine – Profiles in Science

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, …… was born in London on July 25, 1920, the second of five children in a prominent Anglo-Jewish family. Her father Ellis Franklin was a partner at Keyser's Bank, one of the family's major businesses (publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul was another). Both he and his wife Muriel were active in charities and other community services.

Rosalind attended St. Paul's School for Girls, which emphasized preparing its graduates for careers ….. She had demonstrated an early aptitude for math and science, and an easy facility for languages (she would eventually speak excellent French, good Italian, and passable German). ….. Franklin family vacations were often walking and hiking tours, and hiking became one of Rosalind's lifelong passions, as did foreign travel.

"All her life," Franklin's mother later noted, "Rosalind knew exactly where she was going, and at sixteen, she took science for her subject."

Rosalind left St. Paul's in 1938 to enter Newnham College, one of two women's colleges at Cambridge University. Her father did not, as some accounts state, oppose her in this.  At Cambridge, Franklin majored in physical chemistry and received her BA in 1941.

Despite earning a research scholarship, she had to truly battle to get the help needed to earn her Ph.D. in 1945.  Franklin worked to elucidate the micro-structures of various coals and carbons, explain why some were more permeable by water, gases, or solvents; and how heating and carbonization affected permeability. Not only did this original work help the coal industry. But it and later work detailing the structures of graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbons helped form the basis for the development of carbon fibres and new heat-resistant materials, and earned her an international reputation among coal chemists.

After the war, Franklin obtained a position in Jacques Mering's lab at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l'Etat in Paris. There,  she learned how to analyse carbons using x-ray crystallography (also called x-ray diffraction analysis), becoming very proficient with the technique.. She also enjoyed the collegial professional culture of the Laboratoire Central, and formed many lifelong friendships there. Above third from right back at King's College.

The disgraceful DNA debacle

Though very happy in France, Franklin began seeking a position in England in 1949. Franklin was 27 years old when she moved to Paris in 1947 to work on X-ray diffraction in the central laboratory of the French government. Three years later, 30-year-old Franklin joined London's King's College to work on her postdoctoral fellowship

US National Library of Medicine – Profiles in Science

In 1950 Franklin was awarded a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship to work in John T. Randall's Biophysics Unit at King's College London. Randall had originally planned to have Franklin build up a crystallography section and work on analysing proteins. At the suggestion of the assistant lab chief, Maurice Wilkins, however, Randall asked Franklin to investigate DNA instead with graduate student Raymond Gosling ……. Working with Gosling, Franklin took increasingly clear x-ray diffraction photos of DNA, and quickly discovered that there were two forms--wet and dry--which produced very different pictures. The wet form she realized was probably helical in structure, with the phosphates on the outside of the ribose chains. Her mathematical analyses of the dry form diffractions, however, did not indicate a helical structure, and she spent over a year trying to resolve the differences. By early 1953 she had concluded that both forms had two helices.

Meanwhile, at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, Francis Crick and James Watson were working on a theoretical model of DNA. In January 1953 they gleaned crucial insights about DNA's structure from one of her x-ray diffraction photos shown to them by Wilkins, and from a summary of her unpublished research submitted to the Medical Research Council.

Watson and Crick never told Franklin that they had seen her materials, and they did not acknowledge their debt to her work when they published their classic announcement in Nature that April. Crick later admitted that Franklin had realised the correct structure in the spring of 1953.

About James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick

Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material".  As we stated above, although there was no rule at that time against posthumous awards, the Nobel Committee made no posthumous nomination.

Left Maurice Wilkins - model DNA molecule 1962

It is worthwhile noting that Crick in his time, was especially critical of Christianity and once said:

I do not respect Christian beliefs. I think they are ridiculous.

Crick was also a supporter of eugenics.  He advocated a form of positive eugenics in which only wealthy parents would be allowed to have children. He once remarked,

"Eugenics is not a subject at the moment which we can tackle easily because people have so many religious beliefs ....I think it would be risky to try and do anything .... But I would be astonished if, in the next 100 or 200 years, society did not come round to the view that they should improve [sic] the next generation in some extent or one way or another." 

James Dewey Watson is an American. It was he, of course, in 1953, who co-authored with Francis Crick the academic paper proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Watson is also an atheist. He was for a time the chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Scientific American - Gary Stix on October 18, 2007

What is today known as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was once at the center of the American eugenics movement, when it was home to the Eugenics Record Office from 1910 to 1939, at first under the tutelage of the infamous eugenicists Charles Benedict Davenport and Harry Laughlin.
The Eugenics Record Office gathered "pedigrees" of families, noting traits such as allergies, feeble-mindedness, civic leadership and immoral behavior. The University of Virginia Health System's eugenics historical collection gives this description of Davenport and Laughlin's perspective:
"Both men were members of the American Breeders Association. Their view of eugenics, as applied to human populations, drew from the agricultural model of breeding the strongest and most capable members of a species while making certain that the weakest members do no reproduce."
Laughlin drafted model legislation in 1914 that was adopted by nearly 20 states that led to the forced sterilization of thousands of men and women thought to be mentally or physically unfit. The Laughlin model law even influenced the framing of the Nazis' 1933 sterilization laws.

It is worth adding that on 14th October 2007, The Sunday Times Magazine published an interview with Dr James Watson. He said in it that he was  'inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa' because 'all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says it isn't'.

People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.   As quoted in "Stupidity should be cured, says DNA discoverer", by Shaoni Bhattacharya, New Scientist (28 February 2003)

I hope it is clear why there is a connection between Scientism, neo-Darwinism and Eugenics

No one may have the guts to say this, but if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we?        "Risky Genetic Fantasies" in The Los Angeles Times (29 July 2001)

The DNA debacle repercussions

I think one can imagine the shock and anger that Rosalind felt when she realised that Watson, Crick and Wilkins had not only used all her research without her permission, but also not even acknowledged her work, or, as it says in the quote above from the US National Library of Medicine 'did not acknowledge their debt to her work when they published their classic announcement in Nature that April'.

Dr  J D Watson The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968)

I suspect that in the beginning Maurice [Wilkins] hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. ………………………  Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice to maintain a dominant position [sic]. Not that at times he'd didn't see some reason for her complaints.
King's had two combination rooms, one for men, the other for women, certainly a thing of the past. But he was not responsible, and it was no pleasure to bear the cross for the added barb that the women's combination room remained dingily pokey, whereas money had been spent to make life agreeable for him and his friends when they had their morning coffee.
Unfortunately, Maurice could not see any decent way to give Rosy the boot [sic]. To start with, she had been given to think that she had a position for several years. Also there was no denying that she had a good brain. If she could keep her emotions under control, there was a good chance she could really help him [sic]. But merely wishing for relations to improve was taking something of a gamble…… Sooner or later Linus Pauling, who had just turned fifty, was bound to try for the most important of all scientific prizes. There was no doubt he was interested. … The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist [sic] was in another person's lab.

So they got rid of her, grouped together and ousted her, took her research and claimed it as their own. 

Illness and death - the cruellest cut of all

There are those who believe that people die or become ill from the mind out, as it were.  Attacks on them mentally become physical illness.  Even if they have been infected by a pathogen, that pathogen migrates to the seat of their distress.

Rosalind died of ovarian cancer, and the ovaries are a sort of seat of femininety and womanhood.  If we continue with Watson's book, he makes it clear that main attacks on Rosalind were largely against her as a woman.  So the following is of especial note, same book:

Dr  J D Watson The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968)

By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities [sic]. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated austere life could not be thus explained — she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.

When Rosalind’s mother read this critique and that before  in Watson’s book she stated "I would rather she were forgotten than remembered in this way."



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