Photo Finish: Rosalind Franklin and the great DNA race
by Jim Holt - The New Yorker - October 28, 2002
The structure of DNA, the molecule of life, was discovered in the early months of 1953. Nine years later, three men were jointly
awarded a Nobel Prize for this achievement, which has proved to be one of the most consequential in the history of science. James Watson and
Francis Crick, who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory, in Cambridge, England, came up with the famous double-helix structure. The third
man honored, Maurice Wilkins, was a scientist in London; although he worked at a rival lab, he did make available to Watson and Crick
some of the experimental evidence that helped them clinch their discovery. The person actually responsible for this evidence, however, was not
Wilkins but an estranged colleague of his named Rosalind Franklin, who had died four years before the prize was awarded.
For a decade after her death, Rosalind Franklin remained little known beyond the world of molecular biology. Then, in 1968,
Watson published "The Double Helix," his rambunctious, best-selling account of the race to solve the structure of DNA. In its pages, Rosalind
Franklin becomes Rosy, a bluestocking virago who hoards her data, stubbornly misses their import, and occasionally threatens Watson and
others with physical violence—but who might not be "totally uninteresting" if she "took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair."
Friends and colleagues of hers mounted a counter-offensive, which was soon joined by feminist historians of science. Why did
Watson create Rosy the Witch? Out of guilt for having used her evidence, which Wilkins showed him without her knowledge. Neither
Watson nor Crick ever admitted to Franklin that they had relied crucially on her research; neither so much as mentioned her in his Nobel
acceptance speech. Moreover, Franklin herself had made great progress toward identifying the structure of DNA. Had she not been the rare
woman laboring in a patriarchal scientific establishment that limited her opportunities and stifled her talents, the triumph might well have
been hers. So her partisans have contended.
"Since Watson's book, Rosalind Franklin has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts
were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male," Brenda Maddox writes in "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA" (HarperCollins
Publishers, 2002). This mythologizing, Maddox thinks, has done Rosalind's memory a disservice. One wouldn't guess from the "doomed heroine"
caricature, for instance, that Rosalind enjoyed an international reputation in three different fields of research. Nor would one guess from