Updated: Jan 27, 2022
“People like to put people in boxes, but they have so much more in their lives than ever seen.”
- Rosalind Franklin’s niece (named after Franklin)
In recent years, an increasing number of women have been awarded science and engineering degrees. Still, several disparities persist in the STEM field. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization showed that less than 30% of the world's researchers are women. Moreover, only 3% of STEM Nobel prize winners have been women. Therefore, it is essential to discuss cases of disparities in STEM, such as the story of Rosalind Franklin and the history of DNA.
As a chemist, Franklin developed tools that allowed for the collection and accurate interpretation of vital data, detailing the image of the double-helix. Eventually, Franklin’s work would lead to the x-ray crystallography photo of the double helix, helping future generations visualize DNA’s structure. Now, time for some scientific gossip: The photo below was pioneered by James Watson and Francis Crick. Not Franklin. How both of them received this photo is a problematic subject. They obtained it without Franklin’s knowledge or consent from another researcher: Maurice Wilkins. In the end, Franklin died at the young age of thirty-seven due to ovarian cancer in 1958, a few years before the male duo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine using Franklin’s research.
At the same time, there is much doubt as to whether Franklin would have been awarded the Prize in the first place. While Franklin’s niece describes her as a devoted researcher with a sharp and fierce work ethic, this behavior did not fit the stereotypical image of a woman working in a male-dominated field, resulting in mutually averse relationships between Franklin and her male co-workers.
Wilkins, Watson and Crick never asked for Franklin’s permission when using her data in their further Cambridge work. Ironically, Watson attended a seminar of hers a few years before in which she presented nearly identical data to the one she presented them with. Had he bothered to take notes of her presentation, he would have provided their study with the accurate numerical information several months prior to their discoveries.
This event is one of many that demonstrates the consistent misogynistic attitudes stemming from men in the STEM community. While representation in STEM has drastically improved since Franklin’s time, similar cases of research theft still exist. Thus, the representation of women and other minorities in scientific fields is still a major issue, one that will only be resolved through the creation of a diverse STEM community. As Franklin’s niece said, “It’s our time. A time for women to speak up and speak out.” Rosalind “wouldn't want to see herself as the iconic feminist representative,” but rather “just who women should be.”
Cobb, Matthew. “Sexism in Science: Did Watson and Crick Really Steal Rosalind Franklin's Data?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/sexism-in-science-did-watson-and-crick-really-steal-rosalind-franklins-data.
Cumbers, John. “The Scientist Who First Showed Us The Double Helix: A Personal Look at Rosalind Franklin.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 Nov. 2019, www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/11/21/the-woman-who-first-showed-us-the-double-helix-a-personal-look-at-rosalind-franklin/?sh=5a1835e74856.
Lee, Jane J. “6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism.” National Geographic, 20 May 2013, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science.