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Structural Inequality: The Misogyny Behind the Discovery of the Double Helix.

Updated: May 13, 2023

Rachel Gunn (author) & Beth Price (editor)


Note from the Author

The idea for this article came from reading Matthew Cobb and Nathaniel Comfort’s article, ‘What Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure.’ I wanted to know more about the history of how DNA was discovered, and I was enraged by what I found. Franklin contributed more scientifically than I had realised, but the misogyny behind the science was exponentially more shocking than I could have imagined. In the interest of transparency, I admit that I wrote this article primarily as an outlet for my thoughts, although I hope it is a constructive and educational one. I also hope that it will provide an outlet for other readers and researchers as we navigate the waters of inequality in academia, and the world, together.




“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment.” - Rosalind Franklin, Summer 1940.


The Secret of Life


Deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA. The secret of life.


The story of how the double-helix structure of DNA was discovered is well known, with ‘Watson’, ‘Crick’, and ‘The Eagle’ as the main players. As the story goes, in February 1953, the young Francis Crick burst through the doors of The Eagle, a pub in Cambridge, wildly announcing to the assembled drinkers that he and James Watson had “found the secret of life”.

Watson and Crick would go on to become household names for their research, receiving the Nobel Prize along the way, but they were not alone in discovering this secret of life. Another researcher had supplied the Cambridge duo with the evidence that led to their eureka moment and had even given a lecture presenting the foundational theory which Watson and Crick attended. Rosalind Franklin’s name should be at least as familiar as theirs, but her work and her genius has been written out of the history books. Why? Because she was a woman, and a Jewish woman at that.


An opinion article published on Nature.com has offered a new take on the events that led up to the discovery of DNA’s structure. Matthew Cobb and Nathaniel Comfort, both of whom are currently writing biographies of Watson (Cobb) and Crick (Comfort), have, in their words, uncovered “what Rosalind Franklin truly contributed to the discovery of DNA’s structure”. Using previously unseen evidence, they contend that Franklin was an “equal contributor” to the discovery of DNA’s structure (hooray!), while also making the argument that saying Franklin was a “victim” of inequality undermines her reputation as a scientist. While the article has taken the internet by storm, or at least the niche of science social media we seem to inhabit, we can’t help but question the second half of that statement.


A Woman of Science. A Woman of the World.

‘She was a formidable woman beyond the science. An advocate for equality, a mountaineer, and devoted to her friends and family.’ - Hannah Franklin, Rosalind Franklin's Great Niece.

Rosalind Franklin began her study of Natural Sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1938. At that time, women were not allowed to study alongside men in the university – mixed colleges were banned until 1965 and Newnham wasn’t recognised as a full status college until 1948. While women had been allowed to sit the same exams as men since 1881, they were not allowed to be in the same exam hall until 1956, and passing their exams didn’t mean receiving a degree until 1947. Despite Franklin’s scholarship, research fellowship, and academic excellence, she was simply not afforded the same opportunities or access as the men in her neighbouring colleges.


By 1951, Franklin was a physical chemist, working in DNA research at King’s College London. She had earned a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1945 and was considered an expert in X-ray diffraction – the technique used for taking photographs of single molecules -- when she joined King’s College. Initially, she worked with Maurice Wilkins, but her “air of cool superiority” clashed with Wilkins, and so they began to work independently.[1]


Wilkins had previously proved that DNA could take two forms when it was suspended in a solution, known as Form A and Form B, and Franklin focused her work on the former. Initially, she theorised that DNA had a helical structure, but discounted this idea after her photographs showed that the molecule was an asymmetrical shape. In 1951, Franklin presented her research at a lecture reportedly attended by Watson and Crick, who were working on their own theory of DNA’s structure.


Using her knowledge of physical chemistry, Franklin worked to refine the imaging equipment in her lab. She created a humidity-controlling camera which allowed her to make more detailed images of DNA structures than ever before. One of these images, known as Photo 51, clearly showed the helical structure of DNA. Without Franklin’s revolutionary technology and her expertise in X-ray diffraction, Watson and Crick would not have discovered the elusive double helix.


And yet, according to the popular story actively perpetuated by Watson in his book, a glimpse at Photo 51 was all it took for their genius to crystallise. Watson and Crick had been trying to prove that DNA had a helical structure for years (it was generally accepted to be true at the turn of the decade, but was not yet conclusively proven), and had discounted their theories of a triple helix, a single helix, and helices going in opposite directions. As Watson tells it, Franklin was unable to interpret her own data and had missed the evidence staring her in the face. When he saw Photo 51 in 1953, on the other hand, he “instantly knew” it was a double helix and raced back to the lab to prove it with Crick, redefining science in the process.


This mythologised account of lone male geniuses has been challenged before, but new evidence used by Cobb and Comfort adds weight to the argument that, far from failing to interpret her own data, Franklin made an immense contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure. Aside from her expertise in developing the technology which allowed Photo 51 to be taken, Franklin’s research formed the basis of all later attempts to model DNA’s structure. In fact, Franklin had written drafts of two papers which proposed a double-helix model in 1953, at the same time as Watson and Crick were building their definitive model of DNA. Unfortunately for her, Watson and Crick finished their model of the double-helix the day after her drafts arrived on the journal editor’s desk, and the “discovery” was theirs. Perhaps most galling of all, Wilkins, who had refused to work with Franklin, was the one who showed Photo 51 to Watson without her knowledge.


Rosalind Franklin passed away five years after Watson and Crick’s discovery, aged just 37. Four years later, the the 1962 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine (which, at the time, could be awarded posthumously) was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their discovery of the structure of DNA, cementing their names to the discovery.


Systemic Sexism: Acknowledgement not Abolishment


Cobb and Comfort’s article on Franklin’s real contribution has certainly sparked a conversation on scientific recognition. Their title and headline implies an article that celebrates Franklin’s work, and it is no surprise that this has been widely shared and celebrated on social media. Reading the whole article, however, you begin to see some uneasy undertones.


Although Cobb and Comfort emphasise that they are the first to go through Franklin’s archives in such detail to find new evidence of her contribution, they quote Franklin just twice in their article, focusing instead on the recollections of Watson and Crick. In Watson’s personal account of the discovery, first criticised for its blatant sexism in the ‘70s,[2] he only refers to Franklin by her full name five times, and only references her work as a scientist once. The other 82 references are to “Rosy”, a nickname that Watson concedes that they (Watson, Crick, and Wilkins) only called Franklin “from a distance”. In the introduction to the book, Watson writes:


“I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. 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 bluestocking adolescents. … Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable.”

Franklin – an equal, if not dominant, contributor to the discovery of the structure of DNA – is introduced via objectification and judgement for not emphasising her “feminine qualities.” A man who could not have succeeded in his career defining discovery without Franklin’s fundamental contributions reduces her to someone that simply “had to go or be put in her place.”


In the epilogue of his book, Watson concedes that he misjudged Franklin, at least slightly. Yet even as he attempts to acknowledge her academic achievements, he still described her as coming to Crick for advice “when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed.” Throughout his version of the story – the version which has been repeated and mythologised in media and history – he speaks of Franklin in childish, patronising terms. Sadly, this linguistic inequality is mirrored in Cobb and Comfort’s article when they describe recent revisionist accounts of Franklin’s work as having “made a fetish,” thereby deliberately choosing sexual and subversive language to talk about the work of a pioneering woman.


Words are powerful. They can be used to oppress, to create, and to maintain unequal structures within society and institutions. Sexism is woven into the words we use to describe men and women, and often “reinforce the idea that women are lesser beings than men.” [3] When women have historically succeeded despite immense barriers, they have been variously patronised, sexualised, or, ironically, de-sexualised to the point that they are no longer seen as real women. If a woman fulfils at least some social expectations of “femininity,” such as wearing makeup or wearing dresses and skirts, they are inherently seen to be less of a scientist, and certainly taken less seriously. When they are in positions of authority, women are more likely to be called “strict,” “unfair,” or more “annoying” than their male colleagues. In contrast, “brilliance” is codified as a male trait in schools, universities, the workplace, and media. The language used to describe women and their work, particularly the language used by men to describe women, is a tool that can be used to reinforce or to challenge unequal systems, and we must be mindful of how we use it.


Despite their headline statement of finally giving Franklin the credit she deserves, Cobb and Comfort have given practically no consideration to the systemic sexism which Franklin would have faced throughout her career. Even now, 70 years later, any female scientist can tell you that the misogyny which erased Franklin from her own discovery is still alive and well, with remarks about “feminine qualities” and “knowing your place” sadly familiar to too many. Interestingly, Nathaniel Comfort is also the author of a biography of Barbara McClintock, a celebrated geneticist and Nobel Laureate. In that biography, Comfort suggests that McClintock’s success as a scientist meant that she could never have faced gender-based discrimination, even going as far as to call the marginalisation McClintock faced throughout her career the ‘McClintock Myth’. According to Comfort, for female scientists, success in their field and experiencing sexism are mutually exclusive.


It is, in fact, quite possible for female scientists to be highly successful in their field and experience horrific, systemic misogyny. Rosalind Franklin should undoubtedly be celebrated for her immense contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure, and Watson and Crick’s misogyny should be condemned. As Dr Jacquelyn Gill wrote on Twitter, “Acknowledging sexism doesn't reduce women to hapless victims. I get wanting to honor [sic.] women more for their scientific achievements than for surviving their mistreatment, but that doesn't absolve the people who stole from them or ignored their work.”


In other words, highlighting women’s success does not undermine the misogyny they faced.


Conclusion


It is true that we cannot simply compare the actions and anecdotes of the 1950s to our own sense of equality and correctness today. It is equally true that there was much more to Franklin’s work than experiencing sexism, and to only talk about her as a poor woman cruelly overlooked by men is to do her a great disservice. But it is far more disrespectful to pretend that Franklin was not systematically minimised and undermined by people who preferred to mythologise “genius” men than to face the reality of institutional inequality and oppression. We cannot know whether Franklin would have reached the same conclusion as Watson and Crick did without their input. However, we do know that Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Norrish, Bernal, and countless other men in science and academia directly benefited from the uncredited work of women.


The acknowledgement of inequality and oppression does not remove the agency of anyone who has been marginalised. Arguing that recognising the impact of sexism or racism immediately means victimhood and diminishing the marginalised person is, to be blunt, an argument made from a privileged position. Only someone who has never had to change their name to have their paper read, who has never been told to change their appearance to be taken seriously, who has never been forced to justify their place at the table at least twice as hard as the men filling the rest of the seats, would think that they’ve made a winning or witty point.


We should not still be applauding the simple acknowledgment that things were bad for women back in the day, and it is infuriating that we live in a time where influential authors suggest that marginalisation doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be mentioned in the narrative of a woman’s career. When the basic first step of acknowledging systemic inequality is still a lofty aim, abolishment is an impossibility. Substantial and systemic change is needed in academic institutions and in society more broadly. Until change is made that not only acknowledges the historical and continued barriers that actively marginalise groups, but actively changes the hierarchies and mechanisms of academic research, those suggesting that we should just get over it will continue to have the most powerful voice.

 

References:

1. Wilkins (2003)

2. Sayre (1976) & Klug (1974)

3. Women in Publishing Industry Group in Britain, ‘Non-Sexist Code of Practice of Book Publishing’, 1982.

Further reading:

Cameron, Deborah. On Language and Sexual Politics (Routledge, 2006).

Cobb, Matthew, Comfort, Nathaniel (2023). ‘What Rosalind Franklin Truly Contributed to the Discovery of DNA's Structure’, Nature News, 2023.

Franklin, Rosalind E. & Gosling, R. G. Nature 171, 740–741 (1953).

Franklin, Rosalind E. Nature 165, 71–72 (1950).

Franklin, Rosalind E. Proc. R. Soc. A 209, 196–218 (1951).

Klug, Aaron (2004). "The discovery of the DNA double helix". Journal of Molecular Biology. 335 (1): 3–26.4

Klug, Aaron. (1974). "Rosalind Franklin and the double helix". Nature. 248 (5451): 787–788.

Sayre, A. Rosalind Franklin and DNA (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1975)

Watson, James D., Crick, Francis H. (1953). "Molecular structure of nucleic acids; a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid". Nature. 171: 737–738.

Watson, James D., The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (Simon & Schuster, 1968).

Wilkins (2003), M., The Third Man of the Double Helix, an autobiography (2003) Oxford University Press, Oxford. p.155.

Image credits

Image 1: Rosalind Franklin hiking in Norway, c.1940s. Courtesy of Jenifer Glynn/Franklin Family.

Image 2: “X-ray diffraction image of the double helix structure of the DNA molecule, taken 1952 by Raymond Gosling, commonly referred to as "Photo 51", during his work with Rosalind Franklin on the structure of DNA” via Raymond Gosling/King's College London. Fair Use. http://www-project.slac.stanford.edu/wis/images/photo_51.jpg.

Image 3: “In memoriam card” sent to Wilkins by Franklin and Gosling, 1952. Via Wellcome Images. https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/L0043312.html.


Author & contributor positionality statement

The acknowledgement of privilege is an important step the academic community can take to help build an anti-oppressive and decolonised working environment. As such, positionality statements from the author and editor have been provided below.


Author: ‘I am a 28-year-old postdoctoral researcher based in Germany. I identify as a woman/female (She/Her). I am white, British and grew up in the UK. My positionality has been influenced by access to both basic and higher education. Specifically, I had privileged access to the education system in the UK and attended a private secondary school. I completed a bachelor's degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD at three recognised universities in the UK. Whilst these experiences and my own personal interests provided me with an awareness of the inequalities of research and education, I acknowledge that I do not have the authority to comment on identities or experiences of other marginalised groups.


Editor: I am a 28-year-old cis woman who grew up in the UK. I have benefitted from privileged access to standard and higher education, specifically attending a private secondary school and completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at two world-renowned universities. I have benefitted from being white, British, and straight passing throughout my life. Whilst I have experienced sexism and “accent bias” as a woman in academia, I recognise that I have no authority to comment on the experiences of other marginalised groups.


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