Remembering Rosalind Franklin

I heard a snippet on the radio, by Garrison Keillor if I heard it correctly, discussing an event leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The story is familiar, with Watson and Crick having been provided with data, specifically Rosalind Franklin’s photograph 51, that permitted them to leap ahead in the race to elucidate the structure of DNA. According to Keillor, once informed by the photograph, Watson drew a picture on a piece of newspaper while on a train with Crick. They utilized their physical model materials back in the lab to confirm the initial insight, and shortly afterward published their paper in Nature. Rosalind Franklin may not have been aware of the crucial role her own effort played in helping Watson and Crick steal a march on Linus Pauling. That aspect of this affair is arguable.

What isn’t arguable is that the specific way in which the structure of DNA was elucidated, at the time it was, was crucially dependent upon the excellent technique Franklin used in producing clear X-ray crystallography. There was plenty of X-ray crystallography of DNA to look at, but Franklin produced a better image, and to Watson at least this was sufficient to trigger the critical insight.

While much has been written about the role of chauvinism and feminism in denying Franklin a higher profile in the discovery, I instead want to explore another aspect of discrimination that I find no less deplorable. That aspect would be the common elitism that draws a line between the research roles of scientists qua scientists and “technicians”. In general, the way in which credit has been apportioned in the past has been that credit has been artificially restricted to a fraction of people who could claim a significant role in the production of knowledge. There are legitimate issues here, as in how to avoid a heap paradox (not everyone at a university need be included in the author list). But the cultural pressure here has less to do with such issues and more to do with aggrandizing the credit given to those who remain on the author list. This has something to do with lazy administrators who prefer simplicity in evaluation (“count up the number of single-author papers and multi-author papers separately”). One of the fields in which this trimming of credit has been curtailed to some degree is molecular biology and especially genomics, where the effort needed to produce a report of, say, the human genome simply cannot be trimmed down to one or a handful of researchers. Usually, though, critical or crucial contributions to scientific research have been relegated to notes in an “Acknowledgments” section of a paper, or omitted entirely, if the role of the contributor can somehow be construed as being that of a “technician”. This is something that I have personally observed happen time and time again, and can recognize in historical examples such as the diminishment of Franklin’s role in finding the structure of DNA. Being included in an “Acknowledgments” section of a papers earns someone pretty much nil credit for any meaningful review.

I think that a significant factor in the dynamic that shut out Rosalind Franklin has to do with classing her not primarily as a colleague in scientific research, but as a technician putting on airs. This is not to deny the chauvinism/feminism angle, but rather to give some consideration to yet another dynamic at work that has an impact on how credit for scientific work is apportioned — or excluded.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.