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Rosalind Franklin

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Rosalind Franklin and the damage of gender harassment

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Rosalind Franklin, one of the most consequential scientists of the 20th century—indeed, of the entire history of biology—and not just because her 98th birthday would have been last week. She’s been on my mind since the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) issued its June report detailing the prevalence of sexual harassment in university science. Franklin was the victim of one of the most well-known incidents of the particular kind of scientific disrespect that the report calls “gender harassment.”

Gender harassment—defined in the report as disrespecting, demeaning, and deprecating women and their work, abilities, and accomplishments, simply because they are women—has gotten less attention in the report’s aftermath than other forms of sexual harassment, such as sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention. The report emphasizes, however, that gender harassment is by far the most prevalent form of sexual harassment in academic science, as our colleague Meredith Wadman highlighted. Beyond that, sexual harassment in any form “is not just damaging to targets and bystanders, but also to the integrity of science,” the report states. Franklin’s story illustrates how gender harassment corrodes integrity.

The Matilda Effect

Franklin, one of the very few women doing world-class research in the 1950s, is among history’s most prominent subjects of what historian of science Margaret Rossiter terms the “Matilda Effect”: the practice of ascribing women’s accomplishments to men. An expert in x-ray crystallography, Franklin led the team that created what has been called “arguably the most important photo ever taken,” the celebrated Photo 51, which revealed the helical structure of DNA.

When the structure was published in 1953, however, Franklin—a research associate at King’s College London at the time—was not among the authors. Her crucial contribution was mentioned cursorily at the end of the article as having “stimulated” the authors, James Watson and Francis Crick, who were both researchers at the University of Cambridge—and who, with their paper, gained priority as discoverers. 

How did this happen? Shortly after Franklin started at King’s College in 1950, her relationship with another King’s College researcher, Maurice Wilkins, soured. At this remove, and without Franklin’s testimony, we can’t reconstruct how these strong personalities interacted. But we do know that Wilkins, without Franklin’s knowledge or permission, showed Photo 51 to Watson.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering the structure of DNA. Franklin had died 4 years earlier at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer—possibly related to x-ray exposure, some have suggested—and thus was ineligible for science’s highest honor. We can’t know whether she would have been considered for the prize had she lived. But we do know that her contribution to the discovery received little attention for years.

Photo 51

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Comments from Watson and Crick reveal the gender harassment that Franklin endured in the lab. Throughout The Double Helix, Watson’s famous 1968 book recounting the race to the famous structure, Watson condescendingly refers to Franklin as “Rosy,” a nickname never used to her face. “There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents,” he writes, though neglecting to critique his male colleagues’ cosmetic or sartorial choices.

He adds that her “belligerent moods” interfered with Wilkins’ ability to “maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.” For that reason, “[c]learly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. … The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab.” In the 1993 book Nobel Prize Women in Science, Crick was quoted as saying, “I'm afraid we always used to adopt—let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

Did this general air of disrespect rooted in gender play a role in the men’s decision to use the product of Franklin’s work without permission? Some argue that they would have treated a male researcher just as cavalierly. Regardless, it appears obvious that they did not view Franklin as a serious scientific colleague.

A 2017 NASEM report defines six core values of research: accountability, stewardship, fairness, objectivity, honesty, and openness. According to the June report, sexual harassment undermines at least the first three. This is no small matter. As a 2002 study on the topic states, research integrity “is essential for maintaining scientific excellence and keeping the public’s trust.”

Changing times?

“For science to thrive, there must be the freedom to fail,” science writer Philip Ball wrote in a 2015 review of Photograph 51, a play about Franklin and the race to determine the structure of DNA. The male scientists “felt confident enough to foul up.” They “committed howlers in trying to get the prize” but continued to put forward their ideas until the right answer emerged. 

Franklin, however, was notably cautious about publishing until her results were more complete. “In Franklin's time,” Ball writes, “it is not surprising that a female scientist would think that she could ill afford th[e] luxury” of being seen to make mistakes because she was already subject to unfair scrutiny and criticism.

Are things so different in our time? In some ways, of course, female scientists have made substantial progress. Women now hold a wide range of significant scientific positions, including some of the most powerful and prestigious. The event launching the harassment report opened, for example, with a greeting from National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt, previously the editor-in-chief of Science and director of the United States Geological Survey, and the first woman to hold any of the three posts. Women now receive more than half the Ph.D.s awarded in a number of biological fields in the United States. Institutions such as Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois, and the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the United Kingdom now honor Franklin’s work.

But even so, as the harassment report shows, gender harassment continues to thrive, adversely affecting both individual researchers and the scientific enterprise as a whole. It is not hard to imagine that the disrespect still rampant, and the insecurity it can create, could discourage today’s brilliant women from taking the risk of putting forward offbeat, controversial, or not yet totally proven ideas. In fact, we noted this tendency just a few months ago. Such reluctance not only robs individual researchers of deserved recognition and collaboration, but also robs science of potentially significant insights and advances.  

“Academic institutions should consider sexual harassment equally important as research misconduct in terms of its effect on the integrity of research,” the harassment report states. That’s because, quite simply, the risk of impairing the search for truth that it poses can be just as great.

Read more Taken for Granted stories

*Correction 8 August, 10:30 a.m.: This piece originally stated that Franklin was ineligible for the 1962 Nobel Prize because they cannot be awarded posthumously. That is the case today, but at the time the rules were slightly different. Prior to 1974, individuals could not be nominated posthumously.

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