All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

Rosalind Franklin And The Un-Noble Prize

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We’re thrilled to introduce Camilla Mørk Røstvik, our latest guestwench, PhD and teaching assistant in Art and Science History at The University of Manchester. She’s here today fighting the case for Rosalind Franklin, forgotten heroine of science who suffered the ultimate academic injustice…

In 1952, with the production of X-ray diffraction pattern Photo 51, crystallographer Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) unknowingly entered the race to discover the structure of DNA. Already racing was zoologist James D Watson (1928) and biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004). Basing their 1962 Nobel Price winning work on her image, the Watson and Crick model is today far more famous than Photo 51. This, of course, is not okay.

A careful and highly talented scientist, Franklin’s approach to work had always been intense and in May 1952 at King’s College London, she choose to put number 51 away after she had let it dry. The image, left alone, known only to one person, was to become the sole reason for one of science’s most biggest disputes. The image in the drawer peacefully awaited to be interpreted and start its massive journey of changing how humans think about life.[1]

In the 1950s Watson and Crick had been talking, dreaming and drinking together for years. In 1951 at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, their interests were centered on getting a clearer picture of DNA, only obtainable from Franklin in London. Rosalind’s X-ray crystallography images were made by X-rays beamed onto human tissue (DNA), then ricocheting, or diffracting, off of the structures within the molecule, producing a pattern on the photography plate. Only this visual evidence of the structure would make it possible to decide if the form of the acid was a triple or a double helix, or indeed if there was a helix at all – a crucial development in the study of DNA. It didn’t matter much to the head of department, Sir Lawrence Bragg, since the two were not supposed to be working on DNA anyway, but it mattered a lot to them, especially since Linus Pauling, the famous American chemist, was already in the race. Spiralling off of the course Bragg had set them, they eagerly and desperately accepted the images shown to them by Franklin’s colleauge Maurice Wilkins at King’s sometime around Christmas in 1951.[2]

Numerous times Watson has described how his pulse began to race when he saw Franklin’s image.[3] It was the clearest image she had ever produced of DNA, and could tell trained scientists a lot from the structures and patterns it revealed. Watson and Crick instantly got it. Perhaps Franklin did too. Complaining to a friend in December the same year, she insisted that her things had been slightly reshuffled, her drawers opened.[4] Franklin died never knowing that the image had been showed to Watson and Crick behind her back, and was one of the first people to congratulate them on their breakthrough. Today, it’s relatively certain that she was working on a paper about Photo 51 which would also have revealed the double helix structure. Since Watson and Crick ‘made’ the discovery first, she put that work away.

After the monumental visual shift from the x-ray to the DNA model, Franklin became the centre stage for any attention paid to the image. Lifelong friend Anne Sayre, colleagues Aaron Klug, Maurice Wilkins, Crick and younger sister Jenifer Grey all gave their accounts of the race toward and discovery of the structure of DNA, focusing and often entangling each other in descriptions of scientific copyright and disagreements over who said what.[5] The photograph, although always mentioned in these accounts, was an extra in the very seductive and readable narrative of the woman wronged, the exceptional female, and finally, sadly, a young death. Ironically, Franklin, who died from cancer in 1958, overshadowed her own shadow photograph for decades. Although a character of great warmth, intelligence and kindness emerges from her friends and colleagues descriptions of her, in her own writings on science it’s very clear that it was her work that was the most important part of her contribution, as this excerpt from a letter sent home to her parents during the undergraduate war-years at Cambridge indicates:

You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But 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… I agree that faith is essential to success in life… In my view, all that is necessary for faith is belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.”[6]

In her personal letters, Franklin describes her work on x-rays of DNA with clearheaded enthusiasm.[7] She never accused anyone of stealing her work, and died four years before Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Price for their discovery, and ten years before Watson would publish his account of the race for the DNA structure in The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.[8] The angry, passionate and moving responses to her life came from her family, enemies and friends posthumously, not from her. As the field of crystallography fell out of fashion and morphed into the computer dominated biochemistry of today, the image became less interesting scientifically and most of Franklin’s x-rays are today stored in a weary wooden box that hasn’t been categorised and is too small for its content at the Churchill Archives at Churchill College Cambridge.[9] Most of the images have started to turn yellow and curl into themselves, forming straws of see through paper and starting the long road towards dissolution that cannot be undone.[10] Photo 51 is in the Linus Pauling papers at the National Library of Medicine in Ohio, kept in brown paper tied with a piece of string.[11] It’s unknown how it ended up in America, but it’s been suggested that Franklin left Linus Pauling, the biochemist and peace activist, this image and supporting papers as a token of deep gratitude for his support shortly before she died.

This history of science is important in many ways. The massive impact of DNA in modern science would look very different without Photo 51. The story of women in science could feel very different if we called it the Franklin-model, or at least the Franklin-Watson-Crick model. But most importantly, the life and work of Rosalind Franklin should be an inspiration for all women, because anyone who looks into this narrative will very quickly see the hero. Or should I say, heroine.

1. Accounts of Franklin’s scientific work can be found in Maddox, Rosalind Franklin, 70-190; Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer, “Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958)” in Notable Women in Life Sciences. A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press, 1996); Sayre, Rosalind Franklin; Klug, ”Rosalind Franklin and DNA”, p. 889-880 and Grey, My Sister Rosalind Franklin.
2. For accounts on when and how Watson and Crick were shown the image see Maddox, Rosalind Franklin, 196; Watson, The Double Helix, 53-67, Glyn, “Chapter 8: Misery in London” in My Sister Rosalind Franklin; Latour, Science in Action, 1.
3. James D. Watson, The Double Helix, 167; Bruno Latour, Science in Action, 1.
4. Maddox, Rosalind Franklin, 207-213.
5. See for example Anne Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA (New York: Norton, 1975), a direct and furious response to Watson’s account of the hunt for the structure of DNA.
6. Franklin as a Cambridge undergraduate student writing to her parents, FRKN 7 (undated letters), Churchill College Archives, Churchill College, Cambridge.
7. Most of Franklin’s papers are at the Churchill College Archives at Churchill College in Cambridge. Franklin’s sister, Jenifer Glyn, holds the rights to all text and images.
8. James D Watson, Watson, Double Helix. A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. (Norton Critical Edition, 1980).
9. Franklin, “TMV and X-ray Diffraction Patterns”, 1953 (undated); FRKN 8/1 (29 photographs and slides, A protein and B8, circa 1953); Churchill College Archives, Cambridge.
10. Although the images are slowly being destroyed, it is not allowed to take photographs of them.
11. The Linus Pauling papers, National Library of Medicine, Ohio, US.

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Wench

/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.

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Herstory

her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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