Thursday 25 July 2013

Rosalind Franklin Day

Rosalind Franklin was born on St James's Day (today) in 1920.  Although I doubt if she paid any attention to her tenuous connexion with the Son of Zebedee.  She was born into a prosperous and well-connected family of London Jews and grew up an agnostic.  I daresay any sense of attachment to Christian saints would have fallen on St Paul because she went to St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith.  In the context of Jocelyn Bell Burnell's birthday earlier in the month, I reviewed some of the hoo-har about women who should have got a Nobel Prize but didn't.

As is well known, Franklin, didn't get a share of the Nobel Prize that was divvied three ways between Crick and Watson from Cambridge and Maurice Wilkins, who thought he was her boss at King's College London.  She was under the impression that she was an independent researcher and the pair of them were too British to actually have a conversation to straighten things out.  Nevertheless she produced beautiful, crisp and reliable X-ray defraction pictures of DNA which showed Jim Watson that the structure of the molecule-of-life was helical and allowed him to abstract some key dimensional measurements.  It took a while - 9 years - before the revelations about the structure of DNA made The Boys a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962.

Franklin had meanwhile left King's College where her XX chromosomes made her too dangerous to eat lunch with in the Senior Common Room, and started other projects in neighbouring Birkbeck where she was recruited by JD Bernal.  Bernal, far from despising women, was one who loved them all too well and at the same time; although there is no suggestion he made a pass at Franklin.

Franklin got sick with cancer at the beginning of 1956, had two tumours removed by surgery at the end of the year, got sick again in 1957, was in and out of hospital and finally died in April 1958.  There is circumstantial evidence that, like Pierre Curie, long association with mutagenic X-ray radiation may have triggered her cancer.  What I most admire about her was that she continued doing first rate science all through her long time a-dying. Mentoring her students and colleagues by example to fulfill their best potential and strive for excellence.  Chutzpah has far too many negative connotations, so let's just say she had immense courage and remove our hats

The Blob's women in science: Florence Nightingale - Barbara McClintock - Maude Delap - Cliona O'Farrelly - Lynn Margulis - Rosalind Franklin - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

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