The Matilda Effect: Hidden Gems of Science

July 20, 2020 2 min read

Rosalind Franklin is one of the most significant female scientists of the twentieth century - yet also one of the least credited. Although she made incredibly important discoveries on the DNA structure, changing the world’s understanding of genetics and biology, Franklin’s work has only been recognized in recent years.

Franklin was a determined and brilliant woman. At the age of 18, she studied physics and chemistry at Cambridge University, and then later moved to Paris to study X-ray crystallography. In 1951, when Franklin was in her early thirties, she began working at King’s College in London on DNA research. Taking X-ray diffraction images of DNA, and making precise measurements, Franklin discovered that the DNA has the form of a double helix, a structure made of two strands that wind around each other. Without her permission, her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, showed her crucial image of the DNA, called “photo 51 to two other researchers named James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick were also attempting to model the DNA structure but were unable to accomplish this until they used Franklin’s images and her meticulously created data. Watson and Crick learned from Franklin’s work and used it to create their famous DNA model. However, in their published findings, they only gave passing credit to Franklin.

Today, when people hear of the double helix, the names Watson and Crick are most closely associated with the important findings. In fact, in 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins, they won the Nobel Prize for their work, four years after Franklin's death in 1958. For years Franklin went without any major recognition, until more recently when those in the science field started to realize her achievements. In 1982 Iota Sigma Pi designated Rosalind Franklin as a National Honorary Member. Additionally, in 1993 King’s College in London placed a plaque of acknowledgment on its wall stating “R.E. Franklin...DNA - X-ray diffraction studies - 1943.” More recently, in 2019, the European Space Agency named one of their ExoMars rovers “Rosalind Franklin.” 

The world now begins to honor Franklin, and understand that without her crucial findings, scientists would not fully understand reproduction and cell division, as well as mutations and other genetic disorders. Today, her work helps those in the fields of medicine and research and will continue to impact future generations.

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