TS Interviews—Dead Scientist Edition: Rosalind Franklin
This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.
Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) is known best for capturing the x-ray image of DNA that James Watson and Francis Crick used in their model of the structure, which led to them winning the Nobel Prize in 1962. Her capturing of the image was the result of her own fine-tuning of the x-ray equipment to produce finer and finer beams. Much of her data from various experiments with DNA, extracting fibers, rearranging them, testing their reactions to humidity, were used by Watson and Crick in the work that changed biology and medicine forever.
Were you always interested in science?
Oh, yes. I knew by the time I was 15 that I wanted to be a scientist. Even before that, I was certain that whatever I did with my life would involve logic and facts in some way. That was just how I saw the world.
Did your family encourage this?
[Laughs] Not entirely, no. My father was furious that I took the exam to get into Cambridge. He didn’t believe that women should go to university. When I passed, he refused to pay for it. He was so irrational about it all. He gave in eventually, under pressure from my aunt and my mother. I was obviously very intelligent. It would have been a waste not to do something with my intellect.
So you always had confidence in being smart? You didn’t feel you needed to hide it?
That never made sense to me. Who benefits from a woman, or a man, hiding their intelligence? False modesty about it is just silly, especially considering what we know now about genetics. It’s not arrogant to acknowledge your intelligence any more than it’s arrogant to acknowledge your eye color.
How did World War II affect you while you were at Cambridge?
My family was very involved in helping other Jewish people find refuge from the Nazis over the course of the war. I ended up staying in school throughout it all. I went on to get my doctorate in physical chemistry by focusing on a war-related issue, actually. We needed to figure out how to use coal more efficiently, so I studied it in depth, particularly the porosity of coal. This led to the development of high-strength coal, much in use today, I understand. At the time, though, after I got my Ph.D., I joked that I was “a physical chemist who knows very little physical chemistry, but quite a lot about the holes in coal.”
How did you go from working with coal to working with DNA?
After the war, I spent time in Paris learning x-ray diffraction techniques. So when I started working at King’s College in London, I continued to use x-ray diffraction, but now I was looking at biological molecules, studying living cells.
So did you work directly with Watson and Crick?
Not exactly. I did meet them and looked at one of their models, which was incorrect. It was a three-chain helix. I pointed out that it held less than 1/10 the water DNA contained. But I didn’t work directly with them. I simply continued my own work. Or what I thought was my own work. Maurice Wilkins, another researcher at the lab, believed I was his assistant, even though I had been hired to work solo on DNA. Wilkins had been away when I’d first started the job, so this confusion didn’t enter the equation until he returned. And although it was basically acknowledged that it was my project, that didn’t really mean much. This was a time when women had to eat in a separate cafeteria at the college, so I didn’t have a lot of power to do much about the situation beyond protesting. Wilkins eventually brought my data to Watson and Crick, without my knowledge, and the rest is pretty much history. By this point, though, I’d left for another job.
Where did you go? Were you working further with DNA?
No, I wasn’t allowed to take that work with me. I led my own research group at Birkbeck College, also in London. We studied viruses, particularly polio, and this research was ground-breaking as well, setting the stage for structural virology as a whole.
What advice would you give to young women today who are interested in pursuing science?
Well, I would hope that women today do not face the same issues that I did as a woman in science. But still, I recommend being very careful about making assumptions of any kind (even if your assumption is that your fellow researchers are making the same assumptions about the work you’re doing). As scientists, we all know the importance of documentation in our work, but I think we could stand to apply that more to our lives as well. Scientists are notoriously bad communicators, and we see the effects of that all around us. We need to be more meticulous about communicating clearly—with each other and with the world.
Images: Creative Commons, MakeAZombie.com, Henry Grant Archive/Museum of London