Women have made their mark throughout the annals of scientific history, but their contributions are so hidden that when asked to name a famous scientist, children typically cite only men – Newton, Einstein, Edison. When asked to name famous women scientists, most cannot name anyone besides Madame Curie.
Recently, I found myself at the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England having a beer, when I had a chance run in with Dr. James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. Dr. Watson is also the initiator of the Human Genome Project, which I had the honor to be involved in.
The Eagle is famous as the location of the dramatic announcement, by Watson’s colleague Francis Crick, of the discovery of the structure of DNA – a story that has grown into legend among science-lovers.
But what of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose critical contributions made that discovery possible? Her story is less well known, in part because although the facts are available, the colorful details that make a story memorable, compelling and human have not been as robustly shared.
Franklin is best known for her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA at King's College, London. Franklin’s work is often portrayed as laying the foundation for the discovery of the DNA double helix. But the truth is that Franklin – who was driven to become a scientist from the age of 15 and whose fierce intellect and debate style were well known among her peers – discovered on her own that DNA has a double helix structure.
Her work, along with Watson and Crick’s mathematical modeling, served to create a definitive physical model of DNA: two sugar phosphate backbones on the outside with hydrogen-bonded base pairs forming the core. Watson and Crick published the model after Franklin reviewed it and confirmed its accuracy. Franklin and another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, published the supporting data.
Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. But Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, and the Nobel Committee does not make posthumous nominations. Watson acknowledged Franklin’s important contribution and suggested in an interview with Scientific American that in an ideal world, she should have been awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Wilkins.
When we think of Archimedes, we think of him jumping from the bathtub, shouting “Eureka!” When we think of Newton, we think of the apple falling on his head, spurring thoughts of gravity. When we think of Einstein, we think of his early interest in the behavior of light, later manifesting as his famous and simple explanation of the theory of relativity. The women of science, like Rosalind Franklin, have a rich lore all their own. To fully understand the history of science – and for that history to serve as inspiration for women and girls – we must first acknowledge these stories. We need to tell them with color and richness. And we need to create an oral history that drives engagement and excitement for the next generation of female scientists.
After all, as humans we rarely remember dry facts. But we cherish, share and pass down stories and legends that, like science, help us to better understand our world.