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A Personal Recollection of Rosalind Franklin

Jenifer Glynn: “My Sister Rosalind Franklin”.

Thurs 17th May 2012 at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

As a chemistry undergraduate I was always subliminally aware of Rosalind Franklin, that she made an important contribution to the biological applications of x-ray diffraction but that there was some controversy though I wasn’t quite what it was all about. Doing my PhD at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge I walked past her model of tobacco mosaic virus regularly without actually realising what it was and who made it. So when the opportunity arose to invite her sister Jenifer Glynn to speak about her forthcoming book “My Sister Rosalind Franklin” it was a great opportunity to clarify those myths.

Jenifer put paid to those myths and described Rosalind’s character with clarity and obvious affection. Her talk was illustrated with a wealth of family photos showing Rosalind first as a small child with an infectious sense of humour and fun. Then as an adult on holiday in the mountains, clearly a very free spirit, enjoying climbing and long walks, attempting quite dangerous climbing trips, motoring through Europe. The picture she drew was of a fun-loving woman and a very dedicated and conscientious scientist: a picture quite at odds with the dour-sounding “dark lady of DNA.”

Rosalind’s contribution to science was not just in investigating the structure of DNA, that in itself lasted only two years. Prior to her work on DNA she made important contributions to the understanding of the structure of coal and its porosity during her time in Paris. After the work on DNA at Kings College London, which was marred by the unpleasantness of her work environment, she had success with the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and embarked on the structure of the polio virus.

Rosalind’s career was really just getting established, with invitations to speak in the USA and increased funding for her research group, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died at the age of 37. It seems that the significance of the discovery of the structure of DNA was largely unappreciated by the general public until after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1959. Rosalind’s part had been largely ignored until the furore over James Watson’s book which was published in 1968. Jenifer touched upon her thoughts on the response since then culminating in the large number of buildings, prizes and even a University named after her. She elaborates on this also in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society

Rosalind’s fame has continued to grow. St Paul’s (her school) has now honoured her by giving her name to their technology centre; Newnham (her college) now houses graduates in the Rosalind Franklin Building—but in 1958 neither St Paul’s nor Newnham thought of giving her an obituary notice in their magazines. Buildings and laboratories now carry her name in Cambridge, London, Holland and Belgium, and a whole university has adopted it in Chicago. There have been prizes, fellowships, books, radio broadcasts, television programmes, plays, projects for films—I am constantly coming across more.

Jenifer pointed out that Rosalind wanted to be recognised as a scientist and was not striking “a conscious blow for the rights of women”. That set me thinking about what I took away from the story of Rosalind’s life. It is clear that in the 1950’s there was evidence of inequality: the senior common room at Kings College London was exclusively male; the first female Fellows of the Royal Society were only elected in 1945. My discussions with Dr Joan Mason, founder of AWISE, about her experiences of that era revealed a great degree of inherent and unchallenged bias. However Jenifer gave the impression that Rosalind didn’t see it that way, she was focussed on doing good science with the unwritten view that that should be enough. I guess the point is that just doing good science isn’t enough and the story of Rosalind Franklin and DNA makes that point very clear.

Jenifer’s book “My Sister Rosalind Franklin” was published by Oxford University Press in March 2012.

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