I thought it would be fitting to celebrate Watson’s name finally getting removed from our school name by amplifying the work of one of the people he hurt, Rosalind Franklin. People might know the story of how Watson & Crick used a “photo” of DNA that Franklin took – without her permission or knowledge – to “solve the structure of the double helix” (if not, no worries – I’m going to tell you in this post). What people might be less familiar with is that Watson said truly horrible things about Franklin. And he said truly horrible things about a lot of other people – particularly women and minorities – in public, in private, and to their faces. Having his name associated with our graduate school has been disgusting and I am so happy that a group of us current and past students were able to come together (thank you so much alumni for organizing!) and get this long-due change made. It’s an important first step and makes me proud to be a student of the Watson Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory School of Biological Sciences. Now let’s keep the change-making going!
You’ve likely seen “Photo 51” even if you didn’t know that’s what chemist Rosalind Franklin’s 1952 masterpiece is “titled.” It’s that blurry X that unlocked the structure of DNA. Franklin and grad student Raymond Gosling took this image using a technique called fiber diffraction, which uses x-rays to reveal information about “molecular architecture” based on how the atoms in the molecules alter the waves’ paths. It’s related to crystal diffraction – but this famous Photo 51 is not from a crystal! And it was this non-crystal nature that provided the key to figuring out DNA’s structure as we’ll see.
Rosalind’s best known for this, but she was also was a pioneer of carbon technology and she discovered innerworkings of viruses including polio and tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). In her tragically short life she made tremendous scientific achievements in figuring out what molecules look like and how that relates to what they do.
Watson would often refer to Rosalind as “Rosy” but Rosalind never went by this nickname and Watson calling her this can be viewed as one way in which he belittled her and discounted her value (and, if that isn’t enough to convince you that Watson held disgustingly misogynistic views, please check out Lior Patcher’s compilation of quotes https://bit.ly/3e1FdG8
Some people have pushed back saying that Watson welcomed female scientists and gave some of them opportunities they never could have had elsewhere. When I hear this argument I cringe. Because Watson *did* welcome female scientists sometimes – but not for their science… “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.” (Watson, 2012, https://bit.ly/2AwBe75)
I also don’t want to hear excuses about how it’s just an age-related decline issue. He’s been saying this sh*t for years. In his memoir “The Double Helix” (published in 1968 when he was still nice and young) he writes of Rosalind’s departure from Wilkins’ lab (after he shared her confidential work): “Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA.. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was another person’s lab” https://bit.ly/3e1FdG8
I don’t want to just spout off all the horrible things he said, but I do encourage you to take a look. And please note that, while I’m going to focus on Rosalind in today’s post, the things Watson said went far beyond her. They went far beyond misogyny. Watson espoused incredible harmful views on racial superiority/inferiority, mental illness, obesity, and more. And I don’t want this to be lost in the conversation over Watson. It can be really easy for feminists to (rightfully) view this as a victory, but then to (unrightfully) dominate the narrative and portray it as a victory just for women, burying the stories of others who are all too frequently buried to begin with.
Because he has a Nobel Prize to his name, Watson’s evidenceless theories were accepted by some – or at least they were *excused.* But his actions should not be excused. His Nobel Prize winner status makes his actions *worse* and not better – because it elevates and amplifies them. And having his name associated with our graduate school (we were previously the Watson School of Biological Sciences) was an ever-present reminder that powerful people can get away with sh*t and still be honored. I’m not saying go erasing his name from history books. But I do think it’s appropriate to erase Watson’s name from honorary positions, so I’m so happy to see our school take this first step.
As I said, I am *not* advocating for the removal of Watson from history books & science texts. He *did* contribute greatly to science – although I would argue that it didn’t “have” to be him to make those discoveries (and, as we’ll see, Rosalind herself was really close. It is very important to remember and teach the past – accurately. So, keep Watson & Crick in the books, yes, but also add some context – and Rosalind! I for one will happily keep telling Rosalind’s story until it is properly acknowledged, so here goes!
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London, England July 25, 1920. Her father wanted to become a scientist but WWI got in the way – and he almost got in the way of Franklin becoming a scientist. He discouraged Rosalind from pursuing her goal of becoming a scientist (which she had her hearts set on by the age of 15) – not out of malice, but because it was a very difficult career path for a woman. But, while Rosalind couldn’t be dissuaded, her father was able to be convinced. So, after attending one of the only schools at the time to teach girls physics and chemistry, St. Paul’s Girls’ School, she enrolled at Cambridge University’s Newnham College in 1938 as a chemistry student.
After graduating in 1941, she received a scholarship to carry out graduate research. She used the scholarship to spend a year in photochemist R.G.W Norrish’s lab, then took a position as an assistant research officer for the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA). She worked there until 1947, studying the physical structure of coal – and publishing numerous papers on the topic that are still widely-cited. Among other things, she found out that different forms of carbon can form different “meshes” at the molecular level that can filter out and trap various other molecules. By determining that different types of coal have different microstructures – and that their porosity is temperature-dependent – she was able to classify different types of coal and predict their usefulness for different tasks. Her work also helped make possible carbon fiber technology and earned her a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge in 1945.
After CURA, she then moved to Paris, where an old friend helped her get in touch with Marcel Mathieu, a big-wig in French research at the time. Mathieu saw the potential for Franklin to be great too and offered her a position as a “chercheur” in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. It was here where, through the tutelage of Jacque Mering, she learned X-ray diffraction techniques (which would later make her not-famous-enough). X-ray diffraction techniques beam x-rays at molecular samples – the x-rays scatter when they hit the sample and scientists can then use the scattered x-rays to figure out where they scattered from.
She took this newfound technical prowess back to England where, in 1951, a Turner and Newall Fellowship in hand, she went to work as a research associate at King’s College London in John Randall’s Biophysics Unit. Randall assigned Franklin a project to work on DNA structural studies while another researcher, Maurice Wilkins was away. When Wilkins came back, he acted as if Franklin were merely his technical assistant instead of being her own research group leader. After getting off on the wrong foot, things didn’t improve in their relationship (not helped by the fact that women at the time couldn’t even eat lunch in the same room as the men did).
Despite the difficult environment for a female researcher, Franklin was able to made incredible progress in her work. Together with graduate student Raymond Gossling, she figured out how to get informative x-ray diffraction information from DNA. Scientists had been stuck in part because they were only trying to look at a semi-crystal form of DNA, in which the DNA took on an “unnatural” shape and gave a confusing signal. But, by keeping the DNA “wet” and looking at its structure in the soluble fiber form (fiber diffraction instead of crystallography), she was able to capture a “picture” of DNA in its natural form.
This picture held the key information to calculating the geometry of the double helix DNA forms – not just the fact that it’s a double helix with the phosphate groups on the outside and the bases sticking in – but everything from the number of bases per turn, to the vertical spread and the radius. More on this later…
Franklin was on the cusp of unlocking that information when, without her knowledge, let alone approval, Maurice Wilkins showed some of Franklin’s work, including the iconic Photo 51, to Watson and Crick, who were independently carrying out theoretical modeling to figure out DNA structure at Cambridge. The picture provided the missing clues to getting their model to fit, and they were able to speedily publish their classic paper in Nature in 1953 (in a journal issue where Franklin’s Photo 51 paper also appeared but was greatly overshadowed).
Looking for a research environment where she had more autonomy and faced less hostility, Franklin left in 1953 to start her own research group at Birkbeck College in London. As a condition of leaving, Franklin had promised Kings College not to work on DNA, so she switched to the field of virology, studying the structures of viruses including the plant virus tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) and polio, and publishing 17 papers over the next five years (as well as creating giant 3D models for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair).
We will never know what other great accomplishments Franklin would have undoubtedly made were her life not cut tragically short by ovarian cancer. She passed away in 1959 at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer and Watson, Crick, & Wilkins got the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the DNA structure discovery she played a key role in. And then Watson went on to continue to do a lot of wrong yet still get his name put all sorts of places it didn’t belong.
Photo 51 paper: https://www.nature.com/articles/171740a0