Putting Rosalind Franklin in pandemic perspective

The British decision to put Rosalind Franklin’s famous Photograph 51 on the new 50p coin is a reminder that the controversy over her DNA X-ray diffusion work is but one part of a much larger scientific career.

Indeed, as the world is living through a pandemic it is more than arguable that her work in the UK and US on viruses was equally, if not more, important. Indeed, if she had not died so young it is not inconceivable that she could have gone on to win a Nobel for research in that area.

The story has now been told in many ways – books, films, theatre (a very good 2019 Melbourne Theatre Production, Photograph 51) – and has made her a feminist icon.

But, a recent Nature editorial (23 July 2020) said that: “100 years after her birth it’s a travesty that Franklin is mostly remembered as the wronged heroine of DNA.”

The editorial cites the memorial inscription on her tombstone in London’s Willesden Jewish Cemetery. At the centre is one word ‘Scientist’ followed by the words: “Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind.”

Franklin’s career is a tragically typical example of how female scientists – like the African American astronomers and mathematicians involved in the space race – were often neglected and discounted with Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace two minor part exceptions.

The fact that Franklin died before the Nobel Prize for the DNA work went to Wilkins, Crick and Watson adds to the story’s poignancy.

As the Nobel Prizes are not posthumous the point may be moot. But there is no doubt that the way Wilkins showed the work to Crick and Watson was underhand and there was no consultation with Franklin. On the other hand, as an Australian who knew Franklin argues (much to the anger of his feminist friends), an X-ray photograph as such may not deserve a Nobel Prize.

Admittedly, Franklin was protective of her work but even given that what Crick and Watson did was objectionable and showed no collegial goodwill. Wilkins was no angel in this regard either and apparently didn’t find Franklin a ‘clubbable’ type.

The competition between all those seeking to understand DNA, which included Linus Pauling who had laid some of the foundations, was admittedly intense and exacerbated by Crick and Watson’s personalities so that in Franklin’s case US intense competitiveness and British hypocrisy triumphed over collegiality.

But the head of Franklin’s department (Wilkins) should have done much, much more to involve her in the discussions before showing the photographs to Crick and Watson.

Nevertheless, as Nature said: “It is travesty that Franklin is mostly remembered for not receiving full credit for her contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure. That part of Franklin’s life story must never be forgotten….and it’s (now) time to recognise her for the full breadth and depth of her research career.”

That breadth and depth was illustrated during her time at Birkbeck College in London and in California – work which significantly advanced her virus research and which were vital foundations for of further research on, and understanding of the role of, viruses in agriculture, industry and humans.

The Brenda Maddock 2002 biography, The Dark Lady of DNA, is a very good overview of this life and work but perhaps the most poignant is Franklin’s historian sister’s 2012 My Sister Rosalind Franklin.

The sister, Jenifer Glynn, wrote: “….Rosalind became a symbol, first of an argumentative swot, then of a downtrodden woman scientist, and finally of a triumphant heroine in a man’s world. She was none of those things. She was simply a very good scientist with an ambition…to be a Fellow of the Royal Society before she was forty. But she died at thirty-seven.”

With the commemoration of Franklin on the 50p coin she joins a wide range of scientists and inventors who have been honoured on British currency. Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Stephenson, Boulton and Watt have all been on various denominations. In a case analogous with Franklin Alan Turing was put on the 50 pound note in 2019 long after his suicide and significant contribution to WWII victory.

But then Isaac Newton only got on a one pound note back in 1984 so who knows how the Bank of England’s considerations work. And if Boulton and Watt are there on the grounds of propulsion invention what about James Whittle?

Australia, with less historical time to make a comparison entirely valid, has done fairly well with paper currency and scientists. It’s most important decision was to put David Unaipon’s image on the $50 note (the only other currency Indigenous figure is the generic one on two dollar coins) and Edith Cowan, the first female member of the Australian Parliament, on the other side.  We have to wait and see whether this double commemoration will be considered enough or just a beginning.

Others honoured were Ian Clunies Ross, Howard Florey (but uncirculated), the astronomer John Tebbutt and Laurence Hargrave.

The only female consistently highlighted on Australian currency is the Queen. But hopefully at some point in the future that image, along with that of her son if it comes to that) will be removed forever.