Sexism scandal behind the discovery of DNA and the forgotten woman who was key

On this day in 1953, studies published in the Nature journal revealed scientists had made arguably the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th Century – the structure of DNA .

But behind the ground-breaking findings, which unlocked the secret of life, was a shameful scandal of sexism and stolen credit.

The three men who won the Nobel Prize for the work on DNA could not have made the breakthrough without the vital work of young British scientist Rosalind Franklin.

Yet her name was not mentioned by Francis Crick, James Watson or Maurice Wilkins as they picked up the prestigious accolade.

All three based their developments on her unpublished work, which they surreptitiously shared.

In life they dismissed her as difficult, incompetent and uncooperative.

And in his best-selling book, called The Double Helix, James Watson demeaned her personally – even criticising her hair, clothes and make up.

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920 into a rich family of British Jews who made their fortune in publishing and shared it through philanthropy.

Her exceptional intelligence was evident from an early age when she occupied herself with memory games and maths.

An aunt wrote: “Rosalind is alarmingly clever. She spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure. And she invariably gets her sums right.”

She was sent to St Paul's Girls School, which was known for preparing women for careers, and excelled at every subject particularly maths and science.

Rosalind finished school a year early and won a scholarship to study physics and chemistry and Cambridge University.

There, she was introduced to a new technique of X-Ray Crystallography which can detect even the most complex form of 3D molecules.

The breakout of World War II saw her family actively working find safe havens for Jews escaping Nazi Germany in England.

When her father Ellis pressured her to continue the family’s charity tradition, she replied: “I would be of little use in anything but science.”

Her father then accused her of adopting science as her religion but Rosalind responded: “In my view, all that is necessary for faith is that by doing our best we shall succeed in our aims: the improvement of mankind.”

Rosalind joined the war efforts by doing research on coal and her experiments led to major improvements in gas masks.

She graduated from Cambridge with a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1945 then landed the job of her dreams in one of the best labs in Paris.

She perfected her X-ray refraction techniques, spoke at international conferences and was published in respected journals.

But her work incurred risk. Lab workers were frequently tested for over-exposure to radiation.

And when Rosalind exceeded safe levels, she was upset that she had to stay away from the lab for a few weeks.

After four years in Paris, Rosalind was offered a position at King’s College London and asked to set up an X-ray defraction unit.

She knew it was a good move, yet made it reluctantly.

She wrote to a friend: “To change the banks of The Seine for a cellar on The Strand seems to me quite insane”.

When she arrived at her new workplace in 1951, Rosalind had to walk around a huge bomb crater to reach her lab.

Her workplace was also a hostile environment indoors.

A breakdown in communication meant she was employed as an independent researcher but the deputy director of the lab Maurice Wilkins thought she was his deputy to help his separate project looking at DNA.

Maurice was softly spoken, deliberate, shy and liked to work mainly from his office.

Rosalind preferred working in the lab and was direct, passionate, spoke her mind and did not suffer fools gladly. The pair clashed.

When Maurice went on holiday, he returned to find his PhD student Raymond Gosling was now working with Rosalind and she had vastly improved the lab.

But when he checked in on her progress, he was told: “Go back to your manuscripts”. It made for a stressful working environment.

Socially, Rosalind was shut out of the boys’ club culture at King’s College which forbade women from entering the common room and dining area.

Class kept her apart too. For while the men at King’s typically lived in digs and chose to spend their time drinking beer at nearby pubs, Rosalind’s wealthy background meant she had her own flat and went out with a first violin of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

But Rosalind’s first love was her work. She blocked out her antagonistic colleagues and focused on trying to determine the structure of the little-known substance called DNA.

Feeling shut out of his own subject, Maurice secretly showed her unpublished work to two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University.

When they came up with their first model suggesting the structure of DNA, Rosalind immediately and rightly dismissed it as incorrect.

She had taken the clearest picture ever seen of the DNA helix formation, called Photo 51, because she had developed cameras to take such pictures.

When Maurice showed it to Watson and Crick, they realised DNA had a double helical structure, rushed to create a second model and published their paper in the Nature journal.

If Rosalind was annoyed by their data stealing and credit claiming, she did not express it.

She had moved on to a friendlier working environment at Birkbeck College in London, where she achieved vital findings in the study of viruses which she considered her life's greatest work.

But life then dealt Rosalind a cruel blow. Stricken with severe abdominal pains, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Friends described visiting her in hospital with work papers and calculations all across the bed.

She was furious at doctor’s frank prognosis and said she was too busy to die. She passed away on April 16, 1958 at the age of 37.

A decade later, John Watson depicted Rosalind in his book as an unlikeable character nicknamed Terrible Rosie.

She was a bad-tempered blue-stocking who hoarded her data, wouldn't let the men see her findings and lashed out at everyone.

He criticised the fact she did not wear lipstick, said she could be attractive if she took off her glasses and did something interesting with her hair and even mocked her clothes.

But he admitted he needed her findings and boasts of using her knowledge without permission.

It was a grossly unfair character assassination and Rosalind’s former boss Maurice Wilkins strongly objected.

In a TV interview, Maurice, who died in 2004, said: “If there was one thing that was objectionable in the book it was his portrayal of Rosalind.

"There was all this silly natter about the wrong clothing or something and I thought this was pretty inane.

“And they’re not true.”

Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel Prize winner and Rosalind’s last collaborator who died last year, summed up how Rosalind endured sexism.

He told a documentary: “Rosalind was a tough person – single minded, spoke what she believed.

"She could be quite fierce. If she’d been a man, there would have been no remarks.”

And Rosalind's sister Jenifer Glyn remembered how she'd fought against male chauvinism of the times.

She said in a 2015 interview: “All her career my sister thought as a woman scientist she had to try a bit harder.

“I suspect that as a woman she was given less room to experiment and fail. But Rosalind never saw herself as a victim.”

Those who knew and studied Rosalind’s work were determined it would be remembered as far more than a footnote.

It took years until the true extent of Rosalind’s work was properly credited.

In 2003 the Royal Society created the Rosalind Franklin award to support women in science. There is a blue plaque on her former home in Donovan Court in Chelsea.

And today, on DNA day, we remember Rosalind as a top level pioneering scientist whose work revealed the blueprint of life and was never fully acknowledged.

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