Tuesday, 16 April 2013

In memory of an outstanding woman

Today’s a particularly good day to salute the achievements of an outstanding figure of the twentieth century. She was a woman who opened doors in ways that are being felt as strongly today as they were in her time. 

And she wasn’t Margaret Thatcher.

A single photograph is the key to the significance of her years of careful work. Of course, as a complete layman, 
I have to admit that when I first saw it, I was inclined to ask, ‘err... yes... but just what are we looking at?’

The justly celebrated Photo 51.
'Yes, dear, very nice. But what is it?' is not the right response.

However, for those in the know, it provides powerful evidence that DNA is not only a spiral, but a double helix, with the ‘bases’ – the bits that code the genetic message – on the inside. In other words, it was the key to understanding the structure of what has come to be known as the language of life.

It was taken by a crystallographer at King’s College London who, as well as being a skilful and painstaking experimentalist, was also, apparently, a little abrasive, a quality that cost her a few friendships. So it was without her knowledge or permission that her colleague Maurice Wilkins showed the picture to two scientists from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick, giving them the decisive push to build their successful model of the DNA molecule.

James Watson wrote up the story of the discovery in his book The Golden Helix. I heard Watson speak at a conference in 1970, at which he claimed that the US government could save a great deal of money and achieve precisely the same progress, by shutting down all cancer research programmes other than his own. It didn’t seem to me that he was joking, and I was left with the impression that no-one could surpass him in enthusiasm or sincerity of admiration for James Watson.

The book is less than flattering about Rosalind Franklin, who took the key photo 51. Later, Watson admitted that he had been unnecessarily dismissive of both her personality and her skill. But by then he’d shared the 1962 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine with Crick and Wilkins, in recognition of their work on nucleic acids, including DNA. Franklin didn’t get a look in. But then she’d died, at the pitifully young age of 37, in 1958. 

On 16 April, as it happens, which is what makes today so suitable for commemorating her life.

The Nobel Prize isn’t awarded posthumously. But it’s also never shared between more than three laureates. Had she been alive in 1962, would Franklin have been the also-ran? The fourth scientist, the one whose work wasn’t recognised? Perhaps it’s just as well that we’ll never know for sure.

And congratulations to the American National Cancer Institute for establishing the Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science, to the Royal Society in London for setting up the Rosalind Franklin Award for outstanding contributions for any area of natural science, engineering or technology and to the Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School for changing its name to the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (which, to be honest, trips slightly more easily off the tongue, too).

And what a joy, one day before all the pomp and circumstance of Maggie Thatcher’s funeral, to remember another woman of that time, whose contribution may actually prove more lasting – and certainly a lot less controversial.

Rosalind Franklin at work


Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

How lovely to recognize someone besides Maggie Thatcher right now. Thanks.

David Beeson said...

The diet of unmitigated Maggie was becoming a little too much, wasn't it?