Don’t Forget Rosalind Franklin

As 2012 draws to a close, I find myself haunted by the ghosts of Nobel Prizes past.

Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1931; Dag Hammarskjöld won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961; William Vickrey won the 1996 Nobel in Economic Science and, just a year ago, Ralph Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

All were dead when these laurels were bestowed.

Why, then, is the disclaimer that she was ineligible for the prize because she had died consistently appended to any mention that British scientist Rosalind Franklin did not share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962? Fifty years  ago this month her colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins did win, for discovering the structure of DNA in 1953–a determination that was largely based upon Franklin’s data, some of  which they had purloined from her lab without her knowledge. Franklin was the first to determine crucial elements of DNA’s  structure, and she published them in the same issue of Nature that  showcased the triumph as that of her colleagues, despite the collaborative nature of  such research.

Yet the implication is that fate, not her scientific peers, stole her glory, because Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at just 37 and, as many have written, “the Nobel cannot be awarded posthumously.”

However, I don’t believe this is the reason: The evidence leads us elsewhere.

Since the genetic triumvirate won science’s richest accolade, it has come to  seem impossible to exaggerate the medical importance of their discovery. But forgotten amid the anniversary glee is the robust 1950s-era misogyny that served to exclude and marginalize Franklin, disdainfully dubbed  “Rosy” behind her back by male collaborators who nervously eyed her as their competitor, and an intolerably “bossy” one at that.

She was brilliant, experienced and confident, and they wanted her gone. “The real problem, then, was Rosy,” Watson mused in his 1968 memoir The Double Helix. “Clearly 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.”

Unfortunately for her, Franklin’s role in the determination of DNA’s structure was first publicly described by James Watson. “History is written by the victors,” warned Winston Churchill, and The Double Helix minimized Franklin’s scientific contributions and indulged in a wealth of  ad feminam attacks on her supposed need for lipstick, fashionable garb, stylish hairstyle and a more deferential attitude toward the men in the lab— although she had been hired to run her own laboratory.

Watson’s account also made quite light of the orchestrated  theft of her data, as Wilkins spirited the X-ray crystallography she had produced out of a drawer in her lab. Francis Crick later admitted, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt–let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”

This hostility toward women scientists (and the sense of entitlement regarding making off with  their work and tools)  permeated Franklin’s field of X-ray crystallography, even though  a greater-than-usual number of women scientists practiced in it.  For example, British physicist  Sir Lawrence Bragg, often held up as  unusually supportive of women in science, wrote the foreword to The Double Helix without criticizing  Watson’s  flagrant misogyny. While at Cambridge, Bragg himself recounted stealing  a hard-to-obtain tool from another  “lady researcher”  in a Cavendish laboratory and reducing her to tears. How did he justify this? She had “rashly left her door open on leaving her room,” he recalled.

Still,  most accounts ascribe Franklin’s snub not to the lack of esteem held by her fellow scientists, but to the belief that Nobel committee rules barred the posthumous awarding of the Nobel Prize.

This belief is wrong. Until 1974, the prize could be awarded to a deceased person, as long as he or she had been nominated before February of that year. Their nominations enabled both Karlfeldt and Hammarskjöld, for example,  to became laureates after their deaths.

It was nominations, not awards, that were restricted to the living. Had Franklin been nominated for an award up to 1958, the year of her death,  she could have been considered for a Prize that year. But when the sealed 1958 Nobel documents were opened in 2008, they showed that she had never been nominated. So Rosalind Franklin did not fail to receive a  Nobel Prize solely because she had died.

She was dead in 1962 when the DNA  triumvirate received the Prize,  but  why was it awarded a full  nine years after the discovery of DNA’s structure was reported in Nature? Today this delay sounds reasonable, because now, the committee has come to  award discoveries  that have withstood test of time. However the rules of Franklin’s era indicated that the  award was in recognition of discoveries made “during the preceding year.” Had this rule been adhered to, the Prize would have been awarded in 1954, when Franklin was still alive.

Today’s rules  stipulate that only those who die after their award is announced, as William Vickery did, can receive it posthumously. But even that rule is not absolute: The announcement of Steinman’s Nobel Prize was made last year only after the committee discovered that he had died the previous Friday. Technically, this is against the rules, and the Steinman Nobel demonstrates the latitude the committee can take when it wishes to.

Some such as Matt Ridley, Francis Crick’s biographer, claim that Franklin didn’t merit a Nobel because she would never have solved the puzzle of DNA. Why, some ask,  did she not make the discovery first if she had collected all the necessary data? Franklin was, by all accounts, a careful, painstaking scientist, and instead of wildly  proposing unworkable structures, as both Watson and Linus Pauling had done at some point, she preferred to be slower, and correct. The fact that  the others conspired to base their achievement on her purloined data suggests that they well understood its importance.

Yet many aver that her contributions were not important enough to merit the Nobel, and James Watson is among  them.  His 2001 memoir Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix revisited Franklin’s  role in order to denounce her scientific “intransigence” with the same avidity with which  he once assailed her makeup and  hairstyle. Crick disagreed, however, admitting that, given a bit more time, Franklin’s data would definitely  have allowed her  to see the structure herself. However, both stances miss the point that their work was supposed to be a collaboration in which different disciplines, data and styles contribute to jointly solve a problem.

Others claim that Franklin’s  loss was posited on the fact that  only three people can share a Nobel prize, but all four scientists could have been honored by splitting two Nobels, for Chemistry and for Physiology and Medicine, among them.

Still others, such as Bernard S. Strauss, write that Franklin was “not dissatisfied” with the recognition  her work had garnered,  and so would not agree with feminist complaints on her behalf. But no one can know how Franklin felt about her marginalization because she never knew its extent.  Franklin did not live to see her colleagues awarded a  Nobel for work they had all performed. She never knew that their success was based in part upon a conspiracy to seize data from her lab behind her back.  She never knew that one of the laureates would write a book that sought to justify her exclusion by demonizing her as a mediocre scientist, a socially inept co-worker and an unattractive woman. Had she been privy to this information, her alleged contentment might have been swiftly  redefined.

The question of whether Rosalind Franklin should have shared the Nobel prize remains a critical one for scientific culture and practice, and a no less critical question for women. To date, only 10 of the 172 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine are women. Why?

The 50th anniversary seems an opportune time not only to rectify the mythology surrounding Franklin’s ignoble exclusion, but also to consider her treatment’s larger significance. Women scientists are now more numerous, but they make up only 32 percent of career researchers and are much less likely than men to take on leadership roles, to advance in academia or to achieve the top prizes.

Recognizing this problem, the European Union’s Research, Innovation and Science Commission designed an initiative to encourage young women to pursue careers in science. It was launched in mid-June with a minute-long video “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” featuring a  multihued trio of pretty young women bedecked in high heels, nylons, lipstick and short skirts.

The video “girls” preen under the coolly evaluative gaze of a handsome male scientist. Garbed in a white jacket amid the accoutrements of science, he looks up, startled, from his microscope to peer at the girls appreciatively though his horn-rimmed glasses. And as the girls flirt wildly to soft pop, blowing kisses while dancing under a pink rain of cosmetics and jewels, they never touch a tool, an instrument or a chart. “It seems like the beginning of a porn movie,” wrote one exasperated reviewer.

Like Franklin, the girls targeted by this video are being sent the message that the passion, tools and inventiveness of science are not for them, and that even in the laboratory they are important only so far as they can excite the physical attentions of men.

How could we have forgotten Rosalind Franklin’s dismissal as a scientist over her allegedly undercoiffed hair and missing lipstick? How is it that no one who evaluated this video saw its clear parallels to her and to women’s marginalized  treatment within the sciences?

Women scientists saw it, and almost all were appalled, taking to Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and the blogosphere to register their dismay and disappointment.  To its credit, the EU commission admitted failure and withdrew the video.

For Rosalind Franklin’s experience to have meaning, today’s girls deserve better. And Rosalind Franklin deserves to be remembered.

Photo from Wikipedia



  1. Kathy Amiliategui says:

    I remember when I first learned about Rosalind Franklin in my Biology class when we were learning about DNA. We watched a video of the discovery and it was abundantly clear that it was Rosalind Franklin who made the major breakthrough in our knowledge of DNA. It is thoroughly disgusting that we do not give her the proper credit for her work when she is the reason our knowledge of DNA and it’s structure has come so far.

  2. Thank you for remembering Rosalind Franklin!! (Which kind of drives home the fact that I’m incredibly lucky my scientist father taught me about her in the first place.)

  3. Another side of this issue is the fact that women scientists have received Nobels ONLY in Physiology or Medicine since Rosalind Sussman Yalow in the late ’70s, a physicist whose breakthrough work was in medical physics. Apparently there remains a hangover of the notion that women must serve humanity, not merely intellectual progress. Natalie Angier, writing in the NYTimes over a decade ago regarding women only in medical science, said, “If this is a trend afoot, it has a mighty limp” (approximate recollection). The 1985 Nobel in Chemistry pointed excluded Isabella Karle even as it included her husband as one of two, not the maximum three. And we recall the omission of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, in Physics, as well as the dismissive comments made by her male colleague who did get the prize. I think there was an award to a woman in Chemistry (with two co-winners) later in the 20th century. The Nobel web site will have all the details (except the Angier article).

  4. Erratum in my previous post, line 6 : “…pointedly excluded…” Sorry!

  5. I also want to thank you for remembering Rosalind Franklin and advocating for her.

    I’d also like you to remember the great feminist historian, Gerda Lerner, who died last week. I expected you to have an article about Lerner but saw nothing. Please do not forget Lerner and her pioneering contributions to women’s history. Without historians like Lerner, who never stopped reminding us to remember the women, I doubt that you would have posted this article about Rosalind Franklin.

  6. thank you for the education. I studied biochem and worked in a bone marrow transplant research lab as well as others for years and never learned of Rosalind Franklin, but i will definitely to teach my daughter about her!

  7. Thank you for this refreshingly interesting article. Having not really studied biology, I can’t recall hearing of Rosalind Franklin. She is yet another fascinating person of history we should not be forgetting, yet it would see many are happy to hide her story. I would not call myself a feminist, but having been bullied out of an engineering career, it is definitely time people recognised that the marginalization of women isn’t just limited to history & it still occurs – something we should acknowledge so we can all work towards better equality, even in the ‘developed’ world.

  8. It is true that while Rosalind could have got the prize if someone nominated her before her death, but nobody was nominated for the DNA discovery until 1960 (DNA: Archives reveal Nobel nominations. Nature 496, 434 doi:10.1038/496434a). This delay isn’t as unseemly as you suggest either but really just reflects the fact that the majority of the scientific community were not completely convinced that the double helix structure was correct for a number of years. I’m certainly not denying that her role has been minimised and belittled over the years but I do think that she would have received the Nobel if she has not died tragically before the nominations for the discovery were made.


    That Rosalind Franklin has been treated this way amazes and disgusts me. We should take up the fight to have this brilliant woman recognized. How about a petition to Downing Street?

  10. Emily Newsome-Burt says:

    Women should start a prize named after Rosalind Franklin that is focused on recognizing women scientists and engineers since the Noble prizes especially in science is so blatantly misogynistic.
    Time and time again the Nobel is awarded to men who stole from a female scientist instead of being awarded to that scientist who actually made that discovery simply because she’s a woman. The men who won the Nobel instead of Rosalind Franklin won the Nobel prize in thievery and cheating, not in science. Shame on the Nobel committee for rewarding sexism and stealing of research;
    I propose the Rosalind Franklin Prize for women scientists and engineers.

  11. This IS life under Patriarchy for all women. The few who are given the recognition they deserve are only the tip of the iceberg. So many women invented, discovered and built but the patents were given to men; the prizes were given to men. Excuses change, but the reality remains the same. Most men will avoid and refuse to recognize the accomplishments of women because the men are too busy trying to pat themselves on the back.

  12. Terry Boykie says:

    While Watson was playing with tinker toys, Franklin was taking x-ray photos that changed the world. Without her work Watson and Crick would never have achieved their dubious fame. Franklin when she saw an early mock-up of their model essentially told Jimmy and Frankie, it was inside out. Well, Dr. Franklin may not have a Nobel Prize but she was a world famous School of Medicine named in her honor and Watson will only be remembered for writing a snarky memoir and the meretricious way he used a respected scientist’s mind blowing photos without her permission for his own aggrandizement.

  13. John Kemplen says:

    Yes, of course Rosalind Franklin deserves at least equal billing with Watson, Crick and Wilkins in any account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, and if the rule of three was a reason for her exclusion from the Nobel nomination then Wilkins would have been a much better choice as the one to drop from the quartet. BUT there is every possibility that if Franklin had been allowed to follow her methodical and painstaking path towards working out the structure then it would be another researcher, possibly Linus Pauling, that we now honour and remember for the discovery, and nobody would remember Watson, Crick, Wilkins OR Franklin.

    It is ironic that although most of us have learned of the discovery story directly or indirectly from the writings of James Watson, even his account with its patronising and disparaging treatment of “Rosy” makes her pivotal role in the discovery crystal clear.

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