In Biology class this year, I learned about a remarkable woman, named Rosalind Franklin. I had honestly never heard of her outside of this academic context, which is surprising considering her vast contributions to science.
What was most troubling to me, beyond never hearing this important name, was the tragedy of her legacy. So I want to introduce you to this intelligent, ambitious, outspoken woman. It’s the only way I know how to honor her and the technicalities of why that is will be outlined soon.
Let me start with the day I first met Rosalind. I was watching a documentary in my tenth grade Biology class on the so-called “race” to figure out the structure of DNA. As a necessary disclaimer, I must be upfront that the fine details of this story and the deeper extent of the sexism are still questioned today.
The summarized version of the complicated history of this race is that Franklin, a gifted up and coming scientist was researching x-ray crystallography in England at King’s College. She had immense success in working towards the structure of DNA, unlike Watson and Crick at Cambridge, who focused on model building.
It so happens that Watson and Crick were able to obtain a crystallographic photo from Franklin’s team, called Photo 51, which lead them to develop one of the first accurate models of DNA. They used this photo without Franklin’s consent and took complex steps to make sure it appeared as if they were the leaders in this discovery.
Regardless of whether Watson and Crick were driven by sexism or greed, or some combination, these actions come off as toxic. The fact that Franklin was a woman only exacerbates what the duo was able to get away with, so I will boldly declare that the actions are objectively sexist, even not accounting for intention.
Franklin died of cancer in 1958, and because she had passed, she was not awarded a nobel prize for her work on the structure of DNA, as Watson and Crick later were.
Point being, Crick and Watson now have widespread fame built off of The backbreaking labor of their social inferior. And doesn’t that heartbreakingly ring familiar? So many people have gone unnoticed in history, including many women, despite their brilliance and composure and capability and being leagues above their male contemporaries in so many ways.
At this point, I was enraged. Not only for the fact that Franklin’s importance was so deftly overlooked. It was mainly for the fact that the documentary made any nefarious intentions ambiguous. Let me be very clear, what Watson and Crick did was intentional. There’s no way to brush over that.
Yes, they were also brilliant and talented. And I know science is often built off of the work of others, but these were deliberate actions to frame a discovery in a light favoring the men. Franklin did not get due for her work.
To make it worse, Watson later wrote a book, bringing Franklin to light, only not in a redeeming way. Her outspokenness was turned into shrillness and ambition became a dirty word, yet strangely only in Franklin’s case.
Old “Rosy,” as Watson demeaningly dubbed her, became an annoying little obstacle on Watson and Crick’s quest for scientific knowledge. In the epilogue, Watson provides a far more generous description, somewhat complicating matters. All in all, the sexism throughout the dramatic novel can’t be ignored by putting a bandaid on the issue after the fact. To Crick’s credit, he did disapprove of the way Franklin was portrayed in the book.
Almost cinematically, at the peak of my range, my teacher turned off the documentary to give us a quick 5 minute break. I dutifully used this time to outline exactly what should be done to make Watson and Crick pay.
I’ll spare you from the full rage-filled tirade. The basic idea was that an apology wouldn’t cut it. Those are too easy to fake. The only way to truly force repentance, as long as Watson and Crick weren’t going to take those steps themselves, was financially. I’d presumed the me and their families must be set up to receive at least some compensation for the discovery. I concluded Franklin’s family, being that Franklin is no longer alive, should receive a percentage of those earnings.
Of course this isn’t practical, especially since Franklin was above money and who would define a fair percentage?
Here’s the kicker, Franklin couldn’t care less about what I viewed as the destruction of her career. As cheesy as this sounds, hearing that she completely ignored matters and even became more amiable with Crick was incredibly inspiring.
There was no reason for me to try and repair the past damage of men because Franklin had already mentally moved on. She was never in science for glory. And she went on to later gain well deserved recognition for her work with viruses.
She displayed admirable composure and instead of making a big fit about something she couldn’t control, she simply displayed the maturity to move on. Unlike Watson, she didn’t need to desecrate others with words and actions to have a fulfilling career. She focused on the only thing she could control, herself.
Imagine how hard that must have been for her. I mean I was furious and the situation didn’t even directly involve me. I don’t need to fix what happened to Franklin in the past to help her, she already earned her own justice.
This level of self awareness and restraint serves as an incredible example to women of the future. Not that we should remain silent, rather that no matter how hard men try, they can’t stop us from continuing to pursue what we are good at. We are lucky enough today to retain control over what we do and we can’t forget how powerful that can be. If Franklin could realize that back in the 1950s, we can realize it now.