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The Myth of the Wronged Heroine

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The Myth of the Wronged Heroine

A Nature article traffics in debunked history to bolster claims of discrimination against women in science. July 15, 2022
The Social Order

Women receive less credit for their contributions to science than do men, just as Rosalind Franklin was denied credit for her role in discovering the structure of DNA—or so says a recent article in Nature. But the authors’ statement about Franklin is false, and their conclusion about women in science is probably no more trustworthy. The portrayal of Franklin as a wronged heroine is a modern myth that will not die, propagated by feminists who hope with claims of discrimination to undermine male dominance of science.

“Franklin’s pivotal contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA initially went unrecognized, and it was not until long after she died that science realized she was wrongfully denied authorship on the original Crick and Watson paper,” writes a research group led by Julia I. Lane of New York University. In fact Franklin’s contribution was recognized from the start. Watson and Crick, at the conclusion of their discovery paper, wrote: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London.” Moreover, Franklin published all her DNA results, in a paper of which she was lead author, in the same issue of Nature as the Watson–Crick paper. In what way was she “initially unrecognized”?

In asserting that Franklin was “wrongfully denied authorship” on the Watson and Crick paper, the Lane group seems to believe that she was a junior member of Crick’s laboratory who had a claim on the team’s joint work. In fact, she was leader of a rival team at a different institution. Listing one’s competitors as coauthors on a discovery paper is hardly a common practice.

The Lane group cites as support for their strange assertion an August 1968 Nature article by Aaron Klug, a loyal student of Franklin’s, but it has entirely misunderstood that article’s purpose. Watson’s novelistic account of the discovery, The Double Helix (1968), had just been published. In the book, Watson mocked Franklin for resisting the idea that the DNA molecule was helical, meaning spiral in form. There was much truth in this assertion: she had even issued mock memorial invitations to lament the death of the helix hypothesis.

The purpose of Klug’s article was to defend Franklin against this misjudgment and to explain the careful process by which she had come around to thinking that at least one form of DNA was helical. But Klug reconstructs Franklin’s reasoning so thoroughly that he also makes clear how far she was from the solution. Franklin wasn’t sure, even by April 1953, that both forms of DNA visible to crystallographers were helical in structure. Though she knew the famous bases of DNA—designated A, T, G, and C—must be packed inside the helices, she had no idea how they might fit together. Because she refused to build models, she never came close to Watson’s pivotal insight that A always pairs with T, and C with G, forming cross-spiral ladder rungs of equal width. Finally, Franklin had failed to understand a critical feature of her data that was clear to Crick—namely, that DNA belonged to what crystallographers call the space group C2. This means, in brief, that the twin chains of the DNA molecule run in opposite, anti-parallel directions, such that the head of one chain lies against the foot of the other.

“It is interesting to note,” Klug wrote, “that—as she later told me—Franklin did not appreciate the significance of the fact that the space group of the A form [of DNA] was C2. . . . She was not enough of a formally trained crystallographer—nor apparently was anyone else at King’s—to infer that the DNA molecules must therefore possess perpendicular dyads. Of the protagonists, only Crick seemed to have appreciated this fact.”

Franklin’s big achievement was the technical one of obtaining very clear X-ray photos of DNA. She also discovered that DNA existed in two forms, designated A and B, depending on how much water was present. She deduced that the B form was helical but long insisted, erroneously, that the A form was not.

By the genteel rules of British research at the time, the problem of DNA belonged to Maurice Wilkins, who was based at King’s College, London. Wilkins had made significant progress, discovering that if the DNA preparation was kept moist it showed crystalline properties, meaning that it had an ordered structure that should be amenable to X-ray analysis. He and his technician, Raymond Gosling, believed that better X-ray equipment might bring them the solution.

But after this promising start, Wilkins had his X-ray research snatched away from him. John Randall, head of the King’s College lab, had hired Franklin, an expert on the molecular structure of coal, to work on proteins. Wilkins, hoping for help in exploiting his progress with DNA, persuaded Randall to have Franklin work on DNA instead. He was astounded when Randall, perhaps seeing an opportunity to muscle in on the DNA problem himself, directed Wilkins to hand all his X-ray research over to Franklin, including his technician Gosling and his especially fine sample of DNA.

Wilkins assumed that he and Franklin would still collaborate on the DNA problem. But she had no interest in doing so. Franklin was a snob, both socially and intellectually, dismissing Wilkins as “so middle-class.” In fact, she found no one worth talking to at King’s. “The other serious trouble,” she wrote to a friend, “is that there isn’t a first-class or even a good brain among them—in fact, no one with whom I particularly want to discuss anything, scientific or otherwise.”

Franklin’s disdain had its costs. She deprived herself of a much-needed collaborator, and she harmed her own cause when it came to the distribution of credit. When Watson and Crick solved the DNA structure, they arranged with Randall that they, Wilkins and Franklin, would all publish their results in the same issue of Nature.

Watson and Crick could not have solved the structure without Franklin’s data. The acknowledgment in their paper, quoted above, was barely adequate. But it was not Crick’s fault that it lacked generosity. The problem was that Wilkins resisted any praise for Franklin, given how she had usurped his problem and disdained all collaboration. Crick, having already poached his friend’s problem, felt that he could press Wilkins only so far. In an article a year later, without such constraints, he referred to Wilkins and Franklin, stating plainly, “We are most heavily indebted in this respect to the King’s College Group, and we wish to point out that without this data the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible.”

A problem with the feminist portrayal of Franklin as the robbed heroine is the complete lack of evidence that she viewed herself this way. She was a strong character, independently wealthy, and didn’t hesitate to raise her voice against things she thought unfair, such as being paid less than male researchers. Far from resenting Crick and Watson for their use of her data, she became close friends with Crick, spending her last remission from ovarian cancer in his house. She never once asserted that she had been denied proper credit for her work.

It was obvious that Crick had relied on her DNA data—no other source existed. It was also obvious that he had seen what it meant before she did. Crick told me in an interview in 2003 that Franklin never raised with him the use of her data; there was nothing to say. And she was less passionately interested in DNA than were Watson and Crick, who knew that they were pursuing the secret of life. “Our belief is that she didn’t realize until the structure came out how important DNA was. For her, it was just another problem,” Crick said.

The myth of Franklin’s maltreatment originated with the publication of The Double Helix in 1968. The book is a masterpiece of psychology as well as of scientific history. It describes Watson’s thoughts and emotions as a young man of 25. These of course were not necessarily Crick’s, who was 12 years older and probably the intellectual leader of the team. A moment of great excitement for Watson was when Wilkins showed him one of the X-ray photos of DNA taken by Franklin and Gosling.

Gosling had properly given the photo to Wilkins, who remained his Ph.D. supervisor. But Wilkins was indiscreet in showing it to Watson. He did so, Wilkins wrote in his memoirs, in a moment of intense frustration: the photo clearly showed that DNA was helical, but Franklin was still insisting that it was not. Watson lent a sympathetic ear while taking note of vital parameters. The photo, Watson writes, spurred him and Crick to resume building models of DNA. “Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at Kings realized they were in our hands,” Watson wrote.

The implication that Franklin’s data was stolen is the basis for the feminist charges of her mistreatment. But Watson’s gleeful crowing here is misleading. Franklin had already presented much of her data in a seminar in November 1951 to which Watson and Crick had been invited. Crick could not attend and Watson, who did go, misremembered a crucial parameter (which misinformed the construction of their first, erroneous, model of DNA). The information in Franklin’s lecture reached Crick in the more reliable form of a report prepared by Randall of his lab’s activities. The report, for the Medical Research Council, was not confidential. A member of the council’s committee, Max Perutz, gave a copy to Crick.

Crick believed it was legitimate to use data that had been publicly presented. The only real issue about Franklin’s treatment concerns the degree of acknowledgment made to her in the Watson and Crick discovery paper. For the reasons discussed above, the acknowledgment was less generous than Crick preferred, but he made up for it as soon as he could.

A supporting feature of the feminist interpretation of Franklin’s treatment is the allegation that the Kings science department was a male stronghold that excluded women. Ann Sayre, Franklin’s first biographer, wrote that “there was one other woman scientist on the laboratory staff besides Rosalind.” In fact, there were ten women, and they held between a third and a quarter of the professional posts, according to the journalist Horace Judson. The seven whom he was able to trace “agreed that women at their laboratory were treated equitably,” Judson wrote in his history of molecular biology.

As one woman, Dame Honor Fell, told Judson regarding Franklin’s position, “I do know a great deal about that unit. And I never saw a sign of sex discrimination. Of course, Franklin was a rather difficult character—and she disliked Wilkins with whom she was working. They were both, I think, rather difficult people. But I don’t believe she was discriminated against because she was a woman. I never saw a sign of it—and I’m sure I would have done.”

The myth of Franklin as the robbed heroine is without serious justification. She was robbed of nothing. To the contrary, it was Watson and Crick’s use of her data that established her place in scientific history. Had the structure of DNA been solved by the great American chemist Linus Pauling, who was hot on the trail, or by Wilkins, no one today might know Franklin’s name.

The proposition that women are discriminated against in science in general is one I have always found hard to understand. To be sure, science is a competitive field, but why, especially in universities, the heart of progressivism, would male researchers go out of their way to sabotage women? In fact, many scientific administrators actively protect their women researchers, knowing that they may face special problems in their careers.

The most egregious example known to me of a woman being denied credit is that of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the rapidly rotating radio stars known as pulsars. As a graduate student working on one of the first radio telescopes, she spotted the first pulsar signal through a prodigious feat of memory. Her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, asserted that she was just doing her job, though in fact he had set her a quite different task. Hewish received a Nobel prize for the pulsar discovery, and Bell got nothing. But even in this case, it is hard to assert that Bell’s mistreatment was because of her gender. She was exploited because she was a powerless graduate student.

The major source of misappropriated credit in science is between principal investigators and the graduate students who work for them. No graduate students are safe from a lab chief claiming credit, in whole or in part, for any advances made in the lab. Anyone truly seeking to reduce injustice in science, as opposed to making self-interested power plays, would focus on protecting graduate students of either sex.

Lane and colleagues correctly note in their Nature article that there is “a lack of clarity with respect to authorship rules.” By comparing job titles with authorships, they contend that women get their names on fewer papers than would be expected compared with men holding similar rank. They attribute this disparity to male bias against women without ever establishing why such bias should be assumed to exist in the first place. They don’t even consider an alternative hypothesis: that relentless pressure over the last two decades to recruit female scientists has reduced average quality.

The only real-world case study the authors offer is the “canonical example,” which they say motivated their study: that of Rosalind Franklin. Those who agitate for women to gain more power in science will never accept that their canonical example of a woman being denied credit is a myth or repudiate a story so convenient for their purposes.

Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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