Day 572: Understanding Today’s Google Doodle: Rosalind Franklin

originally published July 25, 2013

When I opened up Google this morning, this was my string of thought:

  • “Hooray! A new Google Doodle!”
  • “Oh, it doesn’t have a built-in game or anything.”
  • “Rosalind who?”
  • “Oh. Something-something-biology. DNA. Never heard of her.”

Well that’s hardly the breed of wide-eyed curiosity and insufferable openness that has led to the 570,000 words I’ve plunked onto this website in the past year and a half. And after skimming through the numerous articles about her life, I realized that Dr. Rosalind Franklin is a person everyone should know about. Not only did she contribute immensely to our understanding of the most fundamental building block of life, but she did it as a woman in a world of deeply-entrenched sexism.

She also got royally screwed over by her peers. If that ain’t worth a story, nothing is.

Rosalind was born into a family who already had a bit of overachieving greatness on the shelf. Her father’s uncle was Herbert Samuel, later the Viscount Samuel (that’s a title two notches up from knight), the first Jew to serve in the British Cabinet, and also the guy who oversaw the British Mandate of Palestine, prepping it for its future use as Israel. Herbert was well-respected by the Brits, loved by the Jews… not so much by the Arabs.

But Herbert can get his own article when he gets his own Doodle. Rosalind was born into a wealthy and respected family. Her aunt, Helen Carolin Franklin, had been active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and may have played a part in encouraging young Rosalind to work toward her Ph.D from Cambridge, which she snagged in 1945. This was a time when the high institutes of British science were predominantly run and staffed by stodgy white men with impressive beard-hair. Rosalind wasn’t the first to join their ranks, but let’s just say her odds of finding an empty stall in the ladies’ room was pretty good back then.

The first big egg that Rosalind set out to crack was coal. She figured out that, as the temperature increased, substances would get expelled in order of their molecular size. This means nothing to my non-sciencey brain, but it enabled Rosalind to classify different types of coal and predict their performance and usefulness as fuel, and in the production of gas masks. With World War II hogging all the front-page attention at the time, this was a big deal.

Rosalind was brought to King’s College in London to employ her mad X-ray diffraction skills to the study of DNA. She was given an assistant, a Ph.D. student named Raymond Gosling. Her contemporary, Dr. Maurice Wilkins, was less than impressed. According to one source, Wilkins mistook Rosalind’s role in the lab, believing her to be a subordinate. He was also offended by what he felt to be her “air of cool superiority”. Right, because that’s unusual in the science community.

This was where Rosalind ran head-first into the bias that would loom like a hungry shadow over her career. She was a straight-forward woman. She looked people in the eye, she spoke with a direct – some would say abrasive – manner, and that freaked the unholy crap out of men like Wilkins who believed her to be of a lower rank. Raymond Gosling, her young assistant, was a naturally shy person, which probably helped Rosalind’s assertive tendencies to stand out even more. Rosalind wasn’t the type of person to be deterred by this – she simply shut the door, tweaked her equipment and pushed forward.

Meanwhile, there was a team over at Cambridge who was also just a few loose hinges away from cracking through the door and unlocking the DNA mystery: Francis Crick and James D. Watson. While chatting with Maurice Wilkins about their respective findings, Wilkins got the idea to show them a photograph – one that changed absolutely everything.

Photograph 51 was the result of alterations Rosalind made to a microcamera Wilkins had brought into the lab. Rosalind had taken the photo, and though it looks to me like a freeze-frame of a spinning scene transition from the old Batman TV show, it was actually the key piece of evidence that helped Drs. Crick and Watson put together the double-helix structure model of DNA. Rosalind had no idea her photo had been used to build the model. Wilkins knew, but he opted not to tell her. Kind of a dick move, really.

When Rosalind left King’s College in 1953, her contribution was not forgotten, but it was clearly subjugated to a lower rung than that of Crick, Watson and Wilkins. She was still skeptical about the findings, wanting further evidence before she could take it as fact, but that was to be left for the peers she’d left behind. Her next stop was Birkbeck College, and an entirely new subject of study.

The first virus ever discovered was the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (or TMV). TMV had been well-known since the 19th century, but Rosalind was focusing on the fact that it appeared to be an RNA virus. She observed that all the TMV particles appeared to be the same length, which ran completely counter to the research of the respected virologist, Norman Pirie. Nobody could run an X-ray diffracting microcamera like Rosalind; her observations were proven to be correct.

Rosalind Franklin was blowing the metaphorical doors off the science community’s metaphorical minivan. She was working on the structure of RNA next, the molecule that holds the genome to all sorts of viruses. Even when a pair of tumors in her abdomen left her jacked up in a hospital for a while in 1956, she kept working. While Dr. Jonas Salk was prepping his polio vaccine to be unleashed upon the world, Rosalind pitched in with more information about that disease.

And then, in April of 1958, it all came to an end.

Google’s Doodle today shows Rosalind looking into a DNA double-helix, with a depiction of Photo 51 making up the ‘e’. It’s a perfect summation of her contribution to research that has ultimately given us an unreal insight into who we are on a molecular level. In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and James D. Watson were all awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on the DNA project. Had ovarian cancer not swooped in and carried Rosalind away at the young age of 37, I’d like to think her name would have been on that list also. Though given the world in which she worked, I suppose it’s possible she’d have been overlooked.

Nevertheless, it’s Dr. Rosalind Franklin who gets the Doodle today, and who gets to be famous on what would have been her 93rd birthday. Well-deserved.

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