Women are never given credit for their manifold contributions to the history of science. Photograph 51 is a play starring Nicole Kidman that attempts to set the record straight. It tells the true story of Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-Ray crystallographer who played an instrumental role in the discovery of the structure and function of DNA.
Conventional history has it that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix structure of the DNA at the University of Cambridge in 1953. What few people know is that this discovery was based on experimental data collected by Rosalind Franklin whilst working at King’s College. It was the infamous x-ray photograph 51 taken by Rosalind that proved the helicoidal structure of DNA. In the end, Watson and Crick won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine while Franklin died a premature death at the hands of ovarian cancer and was largely forgotten.
And since we are on the topic of grave injustices, what struck me most about the play was not the tour de force of Kidman’s performance, but the sheer level of misogyny that Rosalind had to face all throughout her life. When she chose a career in science, her father warned her that she could never be wrong, and would have to withstand untold amounts of derision and ridicule simply because of her gender.
Some might think that this is something of the past, but let’s not kid ourselves. In 2006, Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard University, had to resign over a controversy involving a speech he gave concerning the role of women in science. When I think of my friends who have little girls growing up today, we cannot afford to be coy: in its most insidious form, misogyny is very much alive. So remember the name: Rosalind Franklin. Denied the Nobel that she deserved, but hopefully not the recognition and remembrance of future generations.