X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin inspires Heini Hakosalo

Dear Dr Franklin,

I am writing to you from Oulu, a town in Northern Finland. The University of Oulu, where I work, was founded in 1959, a year after your death. I am not a scientist myself, but a historian of science specializing in the history of 20th-century biomedicine. Everyone in our research field would know your name today – in fact, most schoolchildren would, at least in the Anglophone countries. In many respects, you are still with us.
Kemisti Rosalind Franklin innoittaa Heini Hakosaloa, blogs

A lot has happened since you passed away. You regarded your studies on the structure of DNA as one of your three major research contributions, and you may well have taken more pride in the other two, your work on the microstructure of coal and the structure of viruses. While your contributions to the latter two topics are still known to experts, your role in DNA research has become part of our shared cultural heritage. The uncovering of the molecular structure (and, by implication, of the function) of DNA in 1953 is now seen as one of the greatest discoveries in 20th-century science. It opened the road to understanding the workings of the gene and thus of heredity. Watson, Crick and Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the discovery 1962. Today, the image of the double helix is a powerful (and overexploited) visual icon, used liberally to illustrate anything that has to do with life sciences. Genetics was one of the most dynamic sciences of the latter part of the 20th century, and it has continued to take great strides during the present century. Genetics has been complemented by epigenetics (the study of changes in the genome without changes in the DNA sequence), and there is now a relatively easy and cheap technique for editing the genome – I don’t need to stress the great possibilities, or the immense ethical problems, that come with such a technique.

Perhaps none of this comes as a surprise to you. You may be more surprised to learn that you have yourself become something of an icon. I gather that you were a very private person. Paradoxically, you are now a very public one. There are three book-length biographies on you. The first was published by your friend Anne Sayre in 1974 and the second by Brenda Maddox, a professional biographer, in 2002. Your sister Jenifer published a memoir in 2012. You figure prominently in a well-researched BBC film called Life Story (1987). There are several books on you for young audiences, published in series like ”STEM superstar women” and ”Women in science.” Your portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and a prestigious science award carries your name. Buildings have been named after you at St. Paul’s, where you went to school, at Newnham College, where you studied, and at King’s College London, where you did your research on DNA. There is a historical marker on the wall of Donovan Court, where you lived in the 1950s. In short, yours is a household name.

But what that name means to people has changed over time. It all started with Jim Watson’s small book The Double Helix (1968). Although harshly criticised by almost everyone else involved in the discovery, the book became a bestseller. One of the things that the book has been criticised for, both before and after publication, was Watson’s ungenerous, facetious, and, as we would say today, sexist depiction of you. He gave undue attention to your looks and social skills, but misrepresented your views on the DNA structure and belittled the role that your data played in the discovery. In more general terms, Watson’s account was harmful because it strengthened the view of female scientists as conscientious, dextrous and hard-working, but lacking in intellectual courage and creativity required for taking ”the last great intellectual leap”. You can still see remnants of this view in popular histories of science, where women’s research is described in terms of painstaking drudgery, and men’s research in terms of heroic struggle, creation and – sometimes – play.

Many people were unhappy with Watson’s portrayal of you, and it has not withstood time or scrutiny. Aaron Klug, your collaborator at Birkbeck (and a later Nobel laureate himself), immediately contested Watson’s account in a review in Nature. Klug went through your lab notes from the period and showed how very close you came to making the discovery yourself. Your friend Anne Sayre took exception with Watson’s portrayal of your personality, and Watson has indeed retracted much of what he said about you in his book. The 1980s and 1990s saw a lot of research on ”forgotten” women in science. The fact that you were upstaged in the DNA affair was no longer explained by your personality or assumed ”feminine” qualities but by more structural factors such as your exclusion from the old boys’ networks, and later from the platforms where posthumous fame was assigned. You emerged as something of a martyr, an image enhanced by your early death.

The latest research has produced a more balanced view. The Maddox biography is well-researched, although you would probably find the science too simplified and not appreciate her effort to expose your emotional life. (Biographers nowadays do talk much more about emotions that they did in the 1950s.) Her research makes it clear that Watson and Crick would not have come up with the DNA model when they did had they not been in possession of your the data and unpublished research results. These were handed over to them by your colleague Maurice Wilkins, who acted without your consent, and indeed without your knowledge. But the Maddox’s biography, thankfully, does not represent you only or primarily as a wronged heroine of science. It makes it clear that you were neither embittered nor at sea when you left King’s, but tackled a new research topic at Birkbeck with zeal and success. When cancer cut your life short, you were a well-established and well-respected scientist, doing valuable work on viruses with your team, and enjoying life also outside the laboratory (notably on your beloved mountains).

There are many things I would like to ask you, Dr Franklin, although I don’t expect to get answers any time soon. Inevitably, I would like to hear your version of the DNA discovery. What historian of science would not? But there are other things to discuss as well. The post-war period was an extremely exciting time in science, and you were right in the middle of it, first in Paris and then in London, and also, during your trips, in the USA. This was a time when physical chemistry was first seriously brought to bear on the study of life, and your specialty, x-ray crystallography, was one of the most potent ways of doing so. Most of all, however, I would like to hear you talk about your day-to-day work in the lab. I think – in fact I know – that you took great pleasure in it. I know it simply because nothing else but passion for research itself could make a person engage in such intellectually demanding (and physically risky) work for 10–14 hours a day for years on end. Certainly not money, for you could easily have found a better-paid job. Not fame either, because every sensible person knows that no amount of work or brilliance is enough to guarantee scientific fame. Neither money nor fame would be enough to keep one going without an additional, more fundamental factor: the intrinsic pleasure involved in getting your calculations right, making your equipment work, being able to make the invisible visible, the infinitely small into something readily observable, and in being able to do this with people who share your passion.

I’d like to thank you, Dr Franklin, not only for adding valuable pieces in the huge and complex puzzle of life sciences but also for paving the way for other women scientists for doing so. The latter recognition may surprise you, as you were never an outspoken feminist. It is well deserved, however, as undeniable excellence and integrity shown by one of the female pioneers made it more difficult to deny aspiring women scientists these qualities.

Yours sincerely,

Heini Hakosalo

In Science Letters blog series, the researchers at the University of Oulu write letters to great scientists of the past or prominent figures of history. The letters commemorate the 60th anniversary of the University of Oulu and discuss important themes that are part of our world now and tomorrow.

Heini Hakosalo is a Senior Research Fellow in the research unit of History of Science and Ideas.