Rosalind Franklin and Other Unsung Female Heroes of Science

Thursday, February 28, 2013

DNA molecule display (Christian Guthier/flickr)

Sixty years ago this week, James Watson and Francis Crick unveiled their model for the structure of DNA in the journal Nature. It was a revolutionary event, but it wasn’t built on their work alone. An unsung hero named Rosalind Franklin made enormous contributions to DNA research, including the X-ray diffraction images of DNA which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix.

In the end, however, Watson and Crick received a Nobel for their work, along with Maurice Wilkins, and Franklin did not.

We think that’s a shame. And so today, in Rosalind Franklin’s honor, we’re celebrating other unsung female heroes of science.

First, Henrietta Lacks. An impoverished African American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31, her cells were taken without her consent and used to create a still-living line of cells that have been used in breakthrough research ever since. Rebecca Skloot wrote her seminal biography, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."

Second, Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who lived in the 1800s and died at age 36. She wrote the first algorithm intended to be processed by a computer. Because of this, she is widely considered the world's first computer programmer. Dr. Betty Alexandra Toole is an expert on Lovelace. Her book is called "Ada: The Enchantress of Numbers."


Rebecca Skloot and Betty Alexandra Toole

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [6]

James Essinger from Canterbury, UK

An excellent and fascinating programme!

My new biography about Ada, 'A Female Genius, how Ada Lovelace started the computer age' is being published by UK publisher Gibson Square in June 2013.

Mar. 02 2013 06:41 PM
Andrew Raybold

Some of the writing about Ada Lovelace's achievements has bordered on the hagiographical, and more recent assessments have made better-known an even more accomplished contemporary. Mary Fairfax Somerville, who at one point tutored Ada Lovelace in mathematics, is finally getting some of the recognition she deserves.

Mar. 01 2013 08:52 PM
John from Seattle, Washington

How about a shout out to the one million boys in the USA whose erogenous tissue is cut off, invariably without anesthesia or their consent, and used to make women's cosmetics?

John Geisheker
Doctors Opposing Circumcision

Feb. 28 2013 05:07 PM
Melanie Mcgrath from London, UK

Great interviews, thank you. For more info on unsung female scientists go here: Some of these women were awarded Nobel prizes but in spite of their ground-breaking work, almost none is a household name.

Feb. 28 2013 03:13 PM
Betty Alexandra Toole

I enjoyed being part of this excellent program and would like to connect Ada Lovelace to Henrietta Lacks and Rosalind Franklin. Ada most likely died of the same ailment as Henrietta Lacks. When Ada finished working with Babbage her goal was to make a better place for mankind, but she was always ill. She wrote that she lived in a “molecular universe.” She suggested what was needed was “a calculus of the nervous system.” Rosalind Franklin did provide a critical building block for Watson and Crick in understanding the biological world. Sometimes it is women, unknown people, even today, who can and do provide the critical links to understanding and moving science and technology forward to benefit mankind, Ada’s favorite phrase.

Betty Alexandra Toole

Feb. 28 2013 01:48 PM
Steve Knapp

While it is true that Rosalind Franklin's contributions to determining the structure of DNA are commonly overlooked, the reason she did not share in the Nobel Prize with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins is that she had died in 1958, the Prize was awarded in 1962, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.

Feb. 28 2013 12:12 PM

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