Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remembering Rosalind Franklin--and Forgetting James Watson

A Case Study of the Difficulties Faced by Women in Science

As The Guardian reports today, the Nobel-prize winning scientist James Watson--who is also a notable racist and sexist bigot--is having to sell his Nobel medal because he is "poor." He is quoted as saying that, despite his "academic income," he is so poor in fact that he can't afford to buy a David Hockney painting. (In 2009, a Hockney painting sold at auction for £5,235,328, so I'm pretty sure most people can't afford paintings by Hockney.)

Although Watson has brought all his problems on himself, he still feels he is misunderstood--as reported in the Financial Times, "Mr Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, sparked an outcry in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent were inherently less intelligent than white people." To Watson's surprise, he became an "unperson"; or, as he says, "no one really wants to admit I exist." 

Unfortunately, Watson's 2007 comments are just part of a much longer history. As Laura Helmuth writes, Watson has a history of making "ignorant" and "prejudiced" comments, in particular racist and sexist comments, throughout his career. For Watson's bigotry, and for the "outcry" about it that he decries, you can check out the stories in the Financial Times or in The Guardian (where the headline says Watson "deserves to be shunned"). My interest here isn't in wasting more time on Watson but on taking this opportunity to remember the crucial work of Rosalind Franklin. 

Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Watson were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 for their "discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material." But their contributions to understanding the structure of DNA were based on Rosalind Franklin's research. As The Guardian notes, "The story of the unveiling of the double helix is messy and complex, just like all biology. It has been pored over and studied and embellished and mythologised. But simply, the race was won by Crick and Watson, and in April 1953 they revealed to the world the iconic double helix. The key evidence, however, Photo 51, was produced by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, at King’s College London. Franklin’s skill at the technique known as X-ray crystallography was profound, and was indubitably essential to the discovery. Crick and Watson acquired the photo without her knowledge" (emphasis added).

For many years Franklin's contributions were largely unrecognized--they may have been acknowledged or understood among some in the scientific community, but they were not widely known. And Franklin's untimely death of ovarian cancer in 1958, when she was just thirty-seven years old, contributed to her obscurity. 

The first real public acknowledgment of Franklin's contribution was made by Watson, in his 1968 autobiography The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. There, as The Guardian reports, Watson "patronisingly refers to Franklin as 'Rosy' throughout, despite there being no evidence that anyone else ever did. Here’s a sample of how he described her in the first few pages: 'Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.'''

And here is what Watson had to say about Franklin some forty years later, in a 2007 interview:
He smiles. "Rosalind is my cross," he says slowly. "I'll bear it. I think she was partially autistic." He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. "I'd never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind's behaviour.

Rosalind Franklin's English Heritage plaque
was placed in 1992
outside the Chelsea home she occupied,

Watson's reduction of Franklin to the diminutive "Rosy" in his autobiography, his sexist references to her appearance and clothing there, and his failure to acknowledge sufficiently her critical contributions to his work inspired Anne Sayre's corrective, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, published in 2000.

The last three decades have brought Franklin the recognition she so richly deserves; for those of us who are not scientists, the PBS Nova broadcast from 2003, Secret of Photo 51, offers an excellent introduction. The program website offers biographical information, articles, interviews, and online galleries and slideshows. Of particular note is an interview with Lynne Osman Elkin on Franklin's legacy. (You can watch the original Nova episode on YouTube by clicking here.

I might also recommend Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA for its analysis of the sexism, egotism, and anti-Semitism that Franklin faced. Beyond her particular case, you might also check out Julie des Jardins' The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. There is a chapter on Franklin, subtitled "The Politics of Partners and Prizes in the Heroic Age of Science."

Over the last few years, while increasing focus has been on Franklin, I've heard a fair number of people try to excuse Watson by saying that all the attention on Franklin is misplaced, since she couldn't have been included in the Nobel, because the scientists weren't recognized until 1962, after Franklin's death, and the Nobel is never awarded posthumously. That's not the issue at all--the issue isn't whether she "won" a Nobel, but whether her life and work have been recognized, or whether she, like so many women, has simply been written out of history. 

Thankfully, that has not happened. 

So too bad for poor James Watson.

Update, 5 December: As has been widely reported, Watson's medal sold for $4.1 million at the Christie's auction.

Update, 9 December: Again, as it has been widely reported, the anonymous buyer of Watson's Nobel medal has revealed himself as Alisher Usmanov, described by Forbes as the "richest man in Russia." Usmanov has has accumulated a fortune estimated at $15.8 billion, garnered through steel and mining interests, telecom interests, and "investments." Usmanov plans to return the medal to Watson. Maybe Watson will be able to sell it again.