The History of Rosalind Franklin
Have you ever heard about the Matilda effect? It is defined as a bias preventing the recognition of female scientist’s achievements whose work is instead attributed to their male colleagues. This bias was first described in 1870 by suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage. The term “Matilda effect” was coined in 1993 by science historian Margaret Rossiter. Without a doubt, Rosalind Franklin is one of the most notable cases of this effect. A brilliant British scientist, she was of paramount importance in one of history’s greatest scientific discoveries: unearthing DNA’s double helix structure. Her name would forever be inseparable from two men: Francis Crick and James Watson. Their discovery could be considered as defining the secret of life. But what was its subsequent impact on the history of science?
Discovering the structure of DNA was fundamental, leading to research and imagining technologies that turned the worlds of science and medicine upside down. Once the structure of this molecule, carrying the life of any organism, was elucidated, this was the starting point which made it possible to better comprehend life, more efficiently understand the way in which cells are born, live and die, and create biotechnologies. Biotechnologies that allow us to make, for example, insulin or to design diagnostic tests for diseases like Covid-19. By understanding its structure, scientists have learned to manipulate, analyze, modify and shape DNA.
For example, we have all heard the term PCR in recent months. PCR is an acronym for “polymerase chain reaction”, the purpose of which is to detect in a highly precise and specific manner the presence of a gene or a sequence within a sample. To perform this technique, we must break the DNA, i.e. separate its two strands, in order to make two authentic copies. Then we repeat, again and again, around 40 times, thus creating enough identical DNA to analyze. In short, there are tons of examples of methods such as the one used for a PCR test. Each technique is a paving stone that has made it possible to establish a more precise understanding of all living things. And if there is one thing to know, had we not established the knowledge of this precise and elegant structure, it would have been impossible for scientists to sequence our genome, identify rare diseases or cancers, design treatments, or find new forms of vaccines.
What Rosalind Franklin, James Watson or Francis Crick accomplished is nothing short of inventing the wheel without ever having thought of the concept of a car. Research, or progress, is nothing more or less than a succession of brilliant ideas, all thought from a point, which we call “origin”.
Talking about Rosalind Franklin’s history therefore means talking about the great history of DNA. At the time of Rosalind Franklin, very little was known about it. In 1936, Oswald Avery, geneticist at the Rockefeller Institute hypothesized that the transforming agent, the element which carries genetic information from a chromosome to its copy, was possibly DNA. But back then, much of the scientific community still believed that genes were made up of proteins, and did not believe that genetic material could be made of deoxyribonucleic acid. Marked as the century of great advances, the twentieth century could be composed of two eras. Its first half is that of physics with the theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics or nuclear fission. Its second half could be composed of biology. This second half we owe in part to Rosalind Franklin. It was she who, unwittingly, provided essential material needed by those who would subsequently be behind the elucidation of DNA’s double helix structure: Francis Crick and James Watson.
This unintentionally provided material by Rosalind Franklin consisted of two important things: an incalculable amount of experimental data, and a photo that became iconic: Photo 51. Nowadays, it is possible to find numerous articles and videos on Rosalind Franklin – a simple YouTube search will redirect you to videos that aspire to summarize her story in a few short minutes. Unfortunately, many mistakes and untruths often dot these efforts to provide due credit. It therefore seems critically important from our point of view to describe in detail Rosalind Franklin, who was a fundamental figure to the history of science, and because her work represents something greater than being known historically as the one whose research was plundered.
These episodes rely heavily on the book Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, written by journalist Brenda Maddox. If you are interested in Rosalind Franklin’s story, this book is essential. Brenda Maddox, quoted many times throughout the next few episodes, had unique access to Rosalind Franklin’s correspondence with her family and loved ones throughout the course of her life. Maddox also made a remarkable effort to popularize science, and interviewed protagonists of this story on numerous occasions. This book provides a great opportunity to discover the story of Rosalind Franklin through her eyes, especially since for too long, this story has been told only by those who tried to minimize her impact on science and the world.
To learn more about Rosalind Franklin’s story, listen to Fondation Ipsen’s La Science Quelle(s) Histoire(s) – a podcast channel focused on the history of science.
Episodes (in French only)