The Liz Library presents Irene Stuber's Women of Achievement - Women's History Month

Episode #WHM-13 for Day 13
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"Wilkins should never have shown me the thing. I didn't go into the drawer and steal it. It was shown to me, and I was told the dimensions, a repeat of 34 angstroms, so, you know, I knew roughly what it meant and it was that the Franklin photograph was the key event."

Barbara McClintockBarbara McClintock (b. 06-18-1902), American geneticist published groundbreaking theories on genetics in 1951 when she was 49.

Thirty-two years later, in 1983 when she was 81, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for that work - some sort of a record.

That McClintock was being constantly passed over for the Nobel was becoming quite a scandal because FIVE men had received the Nobel by building on or using her theories.

Such scandals that erupt with the "overlooks" of women by the Nobel committee is usually settled when the person dies since the Nobel is never granted posthumously.

But dang blast it! Barbara McClintok would NOT die!

Her contribution in 1951 was such a great leap in scientific thinking - chromosomes were not stable and genetic material could change in a short period of time - that the scientific community considered it a crackpot theory when she postulated it.

Yet it took FIVE Nobel awards to men who used McClintock's crackpot theory to leapfrog to their own fame - and it was still almost another 20 years AFTER they got their Nobels by advancing on her genetic theories.

In 1962 three of them, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick, received the Nobel, leaving out any mention of Rosalind Franklin, a noted X-ray crystallography whose vital work on the double helix theory was "stolen" (see Watson's quote below) by Maurice Wilkins to share with the others - and rocketed their thinking into the DNA double helix. (Franklin's photograph number 51 that showed the basics of the helix was taken from her lab drawer by Wilkins, who was technically her "boss" at King's College London, and then, WITHOUT HER PERMISSION shared with Watson and Crick.

Wilkins treated Franklin with disdain and forced her to leave King's by trying to shut her out of her own work. In fact, the good ole boys network went so far as the order her not to continue her research on the DNA helix. She didn't mind them.)

Some feel that Franklin's quick death at 37 from ovarian cancer was probably exacerbated by the high-handed patriarchial robbery of her material.

When she was at King's College in 1952-3, women weren't allowed in the common room with the men and she was effectively isolated in her work and subject to strong anti- woman sentiment. Wilkins felt he had the right to take freely from her work as he went to Watson and Crick to complain about her "harpy" attitude. Watson later wrote that she wasn't a bad looking woman if she'd take off her glasses and do something with her hair.

But that McClintock who lived on without a Nobel was a further blight on the Watson-Crick-Wilkins work that some are claiming is more important than that of Albert Einstein! And the Franklin controversy which should have disappeared when she died kept growing as the women's movement gathered more steam.

Finally, at age 81, after a 32 years of ridicule and being ignored, Barbara McClintok was finally awarded the gold prize in Oslo. Ironically, McClintok's father opposed education for girls and her mother thought her interest "unfeminine."

Franklin's memory was honored with the opening of the Franklin-Wilkins Hall at King's College - and one wonders if she'd be very pleased at being coupled with a man she argued with and had strong reasons to hate.

Very early in 1953 on one of his visits to Watson and Crick, Wilkins showed them Franklin's "Photograph 51" that he had taken from her files without her knowledge or permission.. It showed the B-form of DNA together with her precise calculations on the molecule's dimensions.

Crick and Watson then BUILT a model of the DNA without the Wilkins' knowledge.

Wilkins, in a very revealing note to Crick on March 7, 1953, wrote: "I think you will be interested to know that our dark lady (Franklin) leaves us next week ... at last the decks are clear and we can put all hands to the pumps! It won't be long now. M."

Franklin was Close on Her Own

However, Wilkins who had betrayed Franklin was now betrayed by Crick and Watson who QUICKLY sent their announcement letter on the discovery of the DNA helix to a scientific journal - without mentioning him (or Franklin).

A beyond-reproach-prestigious scientist who has reviewed Franklin's DNA lab books from March 1953 states that she was quite close to solving the DNA structure - actually having taken photographs of its internal structure.

Watson recently made the following obfuscatory statement recently at Harvard: "There's a myth which is that, you know, that Francis (Crick)and I basically stole the structure from the people at King's. I was shown Rosalind Franklin's X-ray photograph and 'Whooo! That was a helix!', and a month later, we had the structure; and [that] Wilkins should never have shown me the thing. I didn't go into the drawer and steal it. It was shown to me, and I was told the dimensions, a repeat of 34 angstroms, so, you know, I knew roughly what it meant and it was that the Franklin photograph was the key event. . . psychologically, it mobilized us back into action.

"The truth is that we should have got the structure in the fall of '51 (rather than 53). There was enough data. We wouldn't have been able to say with finality that it was right because, uh, that came with Rosalind's X-ray work, that was the proof it was right. . .first slide. Oh, there . . ."

And at that point, Franklin's Photograph 51 went up on the screen. Indeed, what else could anyone say?

Brenda Maddox is writing a new biography of Rosalind Franklin in which the above quote from Watson is used.

In her book she notes that American neuroscientist, Candace Pert, blamed anti-female prejudice when she was passed over for an award she felt she deserved. It was just what had happened to Franklin, she argued. In her 1997 book, Molecules of Emotion.

Rita Levi-MontalciniRita Levi-Montalcini (b. 04-22-1909) Italian-American neurobiologist was the fourth woman to be awarded the Nobel prize for medicine or physiology.

She made ground breaking discoveries in the early 1950's of the Nerve Growth Factor that helps understanding of such disorders as cancer, birth defects, and Alzheimer's. She shared the discoveries and honors with her partner Dr. Stanley Cohen.

As a Jew, she was forced into hiding in Italy where she continued to conduct experiments on chicken embryos in a homemade lab all through World War II.

RLM who held dual citizenship in Italy and the United States spent 30 years working at the Washington University, St. Louis. She also won the 1986 Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

From 1969 to 1978 she served as director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome. Her autobiography is In Praise of Imperfection,1988.

© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again. The text of the documents may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use. Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are © 1998-2009 the liz library.  All rights reserved. This site is hosted and maintained by the liz library.