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Dazzled by the Dark Lady

Rosalind Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, Spring 1950 [Photographed by her friend, Vittorio Luzzati]

Kirsty Martin continues her series of blog posts on 'Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway?' with a personal account of the inspiration she has drawn from the life and work of Rosalind Franklin.

 

In 2014 Glasgow Women’s Library and Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art collaborated to run a project called Illuminated Letters. They called for women to write (and illuminate) a letter to an inspirational woman of history.

I rather wish I’d found out about it then, and contributed to it in reality. But, late to the party though I am, I have a letter I want to write. And following the recent publication of ScienceGrrl’s report on women in STEM, it seems like an appropriate time to honour one of my favourite historical female scientists. Who, remarkably, did not receive any letters in the GWL project, in spite of being on their list of inspirational women.

So, here is my letter (not illuminated, but hopefully illuminating!) to Dr Rosalind Elsie Franklin (pictured), dubbed the ‘Dark Lady of DNA’, a woman with a passion for life as well as work, who would bring dry ice on a picnic and throw it into a pond to entertain her friend's children. (If you’d like to see why this was so amusing, check out this video.)

 

"Dear Rosalind,

I don’t imagine that, as a girl growing up in London with aspirations to be a scientist, you ever imagined that there would be a film about you. Well, including you. I mention it because that was where we first met (after a fashion.)

When I was a child I had various ambitions – I remember archaeologist and writer phases – before I settled on ‘doctor’ for some years. I must have been around 10 years old. That shifted to ‘biochemist’ when I was a little older, when I realised that I didn’t want the responsibility that came with treating patients, but rather to understand how life works. You know, the little things like that...

Maybe my Dad knew that I wasn’t cut out for a medical career – or he just understood what I wanted better than I did at the time. Whatever the reason, one day (when I was still in my ‘doctor’ phase) he gave me and my brother a videotape to watch. The film on the tape was called “The Race for the Double Helix”, also known as “Life Story”. From what I know now, I imagine you would have preferred the latter title. And I think I would have preferred that it included more of yours.

The film focuses on the two year period between 1951 and 1953, that you spent working at King’s College, Cambridge. And, I’m afraid, you were far from the main character. But I suspect you made your peace with that, if it ever was an issue to you in the first place.

In spite of that, I noticed you. Your quiet, dedicated passion for your work appealed to me more than the wild enthusiasm portrayed in Watson and Crick. It is perhaps unsurprising that I focussed on you, a woman, as a role model in a story that highlighted the absurdly archaic ‘no girls allowed’ entry rules of the King’s College Senior Common Room. But I think it was more than that. Perhaps it was because they captured the idea that you didn’t see yourself as a ‘woman scientist’ but simply as a researcher whose work should be judged on its own merit. There is a dignity to that style of feminism that I admire.

I hope you don’t mind me throwing that word about. I appreciate that it was by no means your goal to become the feminist icon of Anne Sayre’s biography “Rosalind Franklin and DNA”. And I doubt that it is a word you would have applied to yourself. But your quiet assumption that your skills should be recognised immaterial of your gender is more powerful to me than the firebrand ‘women’s lib’ advocates of later years.

So, I’m afraid that you do now represent something important to me, and other female scientists; the clear evidence that a woman can be a talented, respected and successful researcher. I know you are by no means the only such example, but for a long time you were the person that came to mind when I thought of being a woman in science.

Your talent was never in question in “Life Story”– it was clear that your X-Ray studies required a great deal of expertise, and that you were a leader in your field. The degree of knowledge of chemistry, physics and maths required to interpret the stunning photographs you took of molecular diffraction patterns are a marvel to me – even more so than that of current crystallographers, who at least can rely on computational support! And it was very clear that without your reports and interpretations - as well as Erwin Chargaff’s work concerning nucleotide ratios in DNA - the model we now know so well may never have been built.

This is what I remember of my early reaction to your role in the discovery of DNA structure. Since then I have learned more about you, and have realised that as both and adult and a scientist there is far more to learn from you.

I now know that your confidence in your abilities was built slowly over a lifetime: partly on your schooling at St Paul’s, which encouraged their girls to develop independent careers; as well as highly successful scientific contributions to the British Coal Utilization Research Association during the war; and the egalitarian attitudes in the Paris lab of Jacques Mering where you trained in X-ray diffraction.

This is the attitude that I was lucky to be exposed to, from my early days and throughout my career so far. We are still working on providing it for every girl with an interest in science. That is one of the reasons that I am writing this letter; to help highlight the achievements of women in research.

But there are even more important lessons in your career progression. Your desire to expand your own knowledge base is an attitude that all scientists should adopt, in the fast moving modern world of technology more than ever. Applying physical chemistry to the cutting edge of biological research is a prime example of what we now call ‘interdisciplinary science’ – which I increasingly suspect used to just be called ‘science’. And your story perfectly illustrates how great developments come from the confluence – unwitting or otherwise – of research and discovery in wide ranging fields.

It is your work on virus structure in the years after you left King’s College that now engenders the greatest level of admiration from me. Seventeen papers in four and a half years, four of them in Nature? That is a remarkable achievement in anyone, let alone someone who had just moved into a new area of research. It is even more so when one realises that for the last two of those years you were battling with ovarian cancer. And it is truly tragic that the work that you lived for, using X-rays on a regular basis, may well have caused your premature death. I wish you could have seen where we are now: the ways we can manipulate DNA; the human genome project; the viral diseases we can treat; and most of all, the progress we have made in cancer treatment. And so much of that stems from that photograph, Photograph 51 (pictured), which you took.

Photograph 51: the pattern made by X-rays passed through purified DNA, interpreted as a double helix both by Franklin and her colleagues Watson and Crick. Image credit: Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University

I have seen an extract from a letter you once wrote to your father several times now: 'In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.'

I hope you felt that you achieved that success; the improvement of the lot if mankind, I can attest to.

Yours most faithfully,

Kirsty"

 

Kirsty Martin graduated in biochemistry from the University of Glasgow in 2006, moved to Dundee to pursue her PhD in cell signalling at the MRC Unit there. She continued her scientific tour of Scotland with a post-doc in advanced imaging techniques at the newly founded IB3 institute at Heriot Watt University before returning to Glasgow where she's currently combining these skill sets working at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.

Outside of the lab Kirsty's an avid reader of classic, historical and fantasy literature; she enjoys puzzle and adventure games; and her geek status is cemented by a love of fibrecrafts, particularly knitting and crochet. She's always excited to find things that combine these varied professional and personal interests!

You can read other blog posts in this series of "Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway" posts from Kirsty on 'Living Liebig’s laboratory legacy', 'What’s In Your DNA, Friedrich Miescher? and 'George's Marvellous Memorial'.

 

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