It’s Ada Lovelace Day today.
Ada Lovelace – or, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – was born in London in 1815. Her father was the poet Lord Byron. She died at the age of 36. And, in between, she was the world’s first computer programmer.
When Charles Babbage built his analytical engine, one of the ways Ada Lovelace got involved was to design a method of getting the machine to output the Bernoulli numbers. It doesn’t matter what those are. What she did was to write the first ever algorithm for a computer. This was in the 1840s.
In her honour, some enterprising bloggers have established March 24th as Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which women’s historically under-appreciated contributions to science are celebrated all across the interwebs. This sounded like something worth doing, and which I thought might get me writing some more, so a few weeks ago I got hold of a copy of a biography of Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Franklin was was born in 1920, and died of ovarian cancer in 1958, and as under-appreciated contributions to science go, hers was a big one.
You know DNA? Well, you’re welcome.
To be less glib: DNA is the molecule that contains the genetic code from which everything that has ever lived (and arguably some things that haven’t) has been built. Here’s a rather nice picture of what it looks like. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for figuring out that this was what it looked like – a double-helix, those two looping spirals joined intermittently across the middle like that. Watson and Crick are the familiar names that everyone knows, and are the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who discovered the structure of DNA?”
And they were indeed brilliant scientists, working at a prestigious university, at the forefront of one of the most exciting and important areas of biological research. But the whole idea that science is primarily achieved by lone geniuses, working in near isolation and having individual flashes of insight which suddenly and abruptly lead to huge and fantastic paradigm shifts, is – although not a complete myth – certainly a severe oversimplification.
Malcolm Gladwell has explained this general idea better than I could. The example he uses is of Philo T. Farnsworth, and the many other people involved in the invention of television. (Incidentally, the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who invented television?” in England when I was growing up was always John Logie Baird. He gets a mention only in the final paragraph of Gladwell’s article, described as one of several people “who had tried and failed to produce mechanical television”.)
The point is that, even though the names of Crick and Watson are the ones best remembered today, being the two names on the particular paper in the journal Nature that first described the double-helical structure of DNA, this one paper was obviously built upon a huge body of previously established scientific study, and the two were never working in an academic vacuum. There were a lot of people involved in the study of the structure of DNA in the early 1950s – sixteen names are listed in Wikipedia’s sidebar on “Double Helix Discovery” – all to various degrees collaborating and competing.
Rosalind Franklin is among the more prominent of those names. She had made a name for herself in the previous decade with her work on the molecular structure of coal, and was widely regarded as a pre-eminent scientist for much of her adult life. She was funded more than once to go on a lecture tour of the US. The PhD students who helped her with her work tended to be somewhat in awe of her.
I mention this because, whenever you hear that a story is going to be about men who took credit for the work of a woman in times gone by, there’s a certain kind of image that may very naturally tend to form in your head. My own inclination is to picture a bunch of smartly dressed men with great hair and chiselled chins, lounging in very comfortable chairs, laughing uproariously at each other’s jokes, probably drinking brandy, and talking either lecherously or condescendingly at the one person who does all the actual work around here whenever she approaches. She’s been hard at work all day doing Science, and can only stammer meekly when the boisterous men grab the paradigm-shattering paper she’s written out of her hands, tell her not to worry her pretty self about this deoxy-ribo-stuff any more, and shoo her away.
And the reason I wanted to emphasise that, to an extent, Rosalind Franklin really was respected and recognised as a serious scientist in her lifetime, is to avoid letting you settle on the above scenario as your idea of what her career was like. Because that scenario is something out of a cartoon. It doesn’t do the feminist cause any favours to imagine that sexist bias only looks like that cartoon, because then it’s all too easy to suppose that sexism just isn’t something that happens any more. We’re done with all that chauvinistic nonsense. The feminists have won. We don’t see those fat-cats sitting around guffawing self-importantly and smacking the womyn-folk on the backside as they leave any more, therefore we have defeated all gender bias in the workplace.
Yeah, um, no. That’s not how sexism usually works. It’s a much more subtle bastard than that, and is something that Rosalind Franklin had to work against in decidedly more insidious ways.
Two years before she was born, women in England didn’t have the right to vote. When she was growing up, intelligence was not always seen as a desirable quality in women; when she was six years old, her aunt observed that she seemed “alarmingly clever”, and did not mean this as a compliment. Women who were clever could get into all sorts of trouble. While Rosalind was at school, the debate society discussed topics such as “That the Entry of Women into Public Affairs and Industry is to be Deplored”. After she got the highest mark in the Cambridge chemistry entrance exam at age 17, she would not be recognised as a “member of the University”, and could not earn an official degree.
She was also Jewish, at a time when many areas of employment and government departments would either not permit entrance to Jews at all, or would place a cap on the number or proportion of Jews allowed in. The fear was that Jews would simply overrun the place if such measures were not installed, and if admission were based solely on, well, actual merit and capability.
From what I’ve read of her career, though, once she’d established her credentials as an excellent scientist and was studying the structures of DNA and viruses full-time, it doesn’t seem like she was constantly fighting an uphill struggle against her gender simply to earn any scant recognition. There was no institutional scorn surrounding the very idea of a woman doing such complicated work. She published 45 scientific papers, a lot for such a short life. Her work was respected. But when most scientists are having their work discussed or giving lectures, we’re not told how, as well as providing fascinating insight into the field of X-ray crystallography, they could probably look quite nice if they did something with their hair.
It was not only complicated work that she was doing, but vitally important, too. Rosalind made arguably as significant a contribution as anyone to the discovery of the structure of DNA – in particular, she took the X-Ray diffraction image that inspired Crick and Watson to produce their famous model. It was a higher quality image than anyone else had managed to produce of its kind, anywhere.
It’s another over-simplification to say that anyone simply stole her data, though. Raymond Gosling was Rosalind’s PhD student at the time, and was involved in the taking of the photograph. Some months after it was taken, he showed it to Maurice Wilkins, who also worked in their department at King’s College London. Wilkins showed it to Watson, and this too seems to have been done in a justified spirit of openness and collaboration. It wasn’t any kind of a “smoking gun” piece of evidence, with vast significance in and of itself. It hadn’t been marked for any kind of secrecy. And Rosalind wasn’t the be-all and end-all of DNA research at the college. The worst you can really say of anyone’s behaviour in this regard, it seems, is that it was ungallant of them not to have at least kept her in the loop – and, certainly, not to have given her work more prominent credit when the famous paper was published.
She was increasingly ill in her final months and weeks, and underwent a number of operations. The unfairness that frustrated her and stopped her getting done everything she wanted to get done was due to the cancer, more than to any systematic gender bias. She was eulogised fondly by her colleagues immediately following her death, and her family were astonished at quite how influential their Rosalind – who had never liked to bore the non-scientists in her life with the technical and incomprehensible details of her work, and was too modest to try to convey its importance – had apparently been.
But outside of her immediate circle of colleagues, it was a long time before Rosalind’s involvement in this particular discovery was ever fully understood or appreciated. James Watson’s 1968 book The Double Helix is perhaps the most widely known account of the years surrounding the crucial paper, and has been lauded as a highly personal and detailed scientific account, but it also seems to be where a lot of the accusations of sexist bias lead back to. Lines like “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab” wouldn’t win him many friends today – and his generally dismissive approach to the role that Rosalind played didn’t go down well with those who’d known her at the time, either.
Many of Rosalind’s colleagues wrote to Watson objecting to his unfair portrayal before the book was published. Under some duress, he added an epilogue and admitted to have developed some respect for her achievements in the time since he’d made those first impressions. But Harvard University Press eventually backed out of publishing it altogether. Maurice Wilkins in particular described the book as being “unfair to me, to Dr Crick and to almost everyone mentioned except Professor Watson himself”. At the very least, Watson seems to have found it difficult to acknowledge the contributions of a number of other people to his work, and to have spent a good deal of time in the following years trying to justify certain of his actions, which he may have come to feel guiltier about than he admitted at the time.
Aside from the various links scattered throughout this article, pretty much my only source for all this has been the 2002 biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox. (Perhaps not great scholarship under usual conditions to have such a limited set of references, but I’m pretty sure the overall impression I’ve conveyed here is appropriately balanced and accurate.)
I’ll close with a quote from a letter that Rosalind wrote to her father from University, where he was worried that she was “making science her religion”. It’s one of the finest summaries of humanist philosophy I’ve read.
Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment. Your theories are those which you and many other people find easiest and pleasantest to believe, but so far as I can see, they have no foundation other than that they lead to a pleasanter view of life (and an exaggerated idea of our own importance)…
I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort) but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining…
I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us, as still more insignificant individuals… I see no reason why the belief that we are insignificant or fortuitous should lessen our faith – as I have defined it.