By Sarah Donoghue 

Sunday, the 11th of February 2024, was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The Science Foundation of Ireland, the SFI, celebrated the International Day of Women in Science, and has been dedicated to promoting science to women and girls for years. The SFI funded numerous science-related and non-science related schemes all across Ireland and the world. From Science Week to sponsoring the 2024 Student Media Awards, the SMEDIAs, the SFI and science is all around us. Women have been fundamental in most of the Scientific discoveries from the last century. However, women often went uncredited or had their work stolen by men. I am going to look at one iconic scientific discovery that changed our entire understanding of DNA. This discovery would not have been possible without one forgotten woman. 

Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix.  

Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920. She dreamed of being a scientist ever since she was a young teenager. However, due to the time, her dreams were often overlooked. Thankfully, she was a very talented student and earned a scholarship to the University of Cambridge to study chemistry. After fighting her way to the top of her class and achieving a PHD in chemistry she began working and studying coal too.

In 1951, she began working at King’s College studying DNA. She would analyse X-rays of crystallised DNA structures. Her goal was to calculate the shape of a singular DNA structure. She was outcasted by her colleagues for being a woman. One man in particular, Maurice Wilkins, greatly disliked her after they fought because he assumed she was hired as his assistant.  

Despite the hostile work atmosphere, Franklin carried on. Just a year after she started at Kings College, she made possibly the biggest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. She took photo 51.  

Photo 51 was the clearest image of DNA ever taken at that time. It has become the most famous image of the structure of DNA. While it may be just a photo, it took over 100 hours for her to get the image. It also took her over a year for her to complete the calculations needed to figure out the shape of DNA structures from the image. From the image, she figured out DNA is in a double Helix structure. 

Before I continue, Franklin Story, we should look into the contributions the double Helix has made to genealogy, the study of genetics. The discovery of the double Helix is considered vital in our current understanding of cancer and how doctors and scientists prevent cancer from invading other places of the body. The discovery also completely changed our understanding of genetics. 

At the same time that Franklin was working on Photo 51, two men were also studying genetics, James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick also worked at King’s College and, like Franklin, they also had the goal of discovering the shape of a DNA. One day, Maurice Wilkins snuck into Franklin’s lab and took the Photo 51. He showed it to Watson and Crick. from there, Watson and Crick based their research on this stolen photo.  

Instead of accurately calculating the image like Franklin was, they decided to come up with rough prototypes and different shapes of DNA until they found the right one. They wrote down their discoveries in a book called The Double Helix. In this book, they refer to Franklin as a “plain-dressing, belligerent scientist.”  

At the same time as Watson and Crick finished their research paper, Franklin had also finished her calculations and written up a research paper of her own. The scientific journal published both of their manuscripts together. However, the journal put Watsons and Crick’s paper first and Franklins after their’s. This made it seem like Franklin’s research was just supporting Watson and Crick’s discovery. 

Franklin still did not know that Watson and Crick had stolen her photo. They believed that they had simply come to the conclusion at the same time. Unfortunately, Franklin ended up giving her life to science as in 1958 she died of cancer which was likely caused by the long term exposure to X-rays due to her research. She died without ever knowing that her work was stolen. 

To start, the story only gets more tragic, as in 1962 Wilkins, Watson and Crick all won a Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. There was no doubt that had she lived long enough, Franklin would have also received the Nobel Prize. Many scientists think that she would have won two Nobel Prizes because after she worked on DNA, she studied the structure of viruses. In 1982, a colleague of hers won a Nobel Prize for that work. Rosalind Franklin is not the only scientist with this story. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science and the SFI seek to tell the story of scientists like Rosalind who have been overlooked and to promote science to young girls. 

Sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland