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Science’s Most Elusive Women: Rosalind Franklin

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The mysterious story of molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin will be explored next week at the World Science Festival’s The Secret Behind the Secret of Life: Facts and Fictions with The Ensemble Studio Theatre Production of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51. The photo itself has been hailed by the British scientific icon and expert x-ray crystallographer John Bernal as “the most beautiful x-ray photograph of any substance ever taken.” But the photographer, Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, has remained a cipher.

The photo was one in a series of what was then the most detailed images of the three-dimensional structure of a complex molecule ever captured. It was the product of years of equipment optimization and meticulous experimentation by Franklin. For James Watson and Francis Crick, it was the key visual evidence for a helical model of DNA, or so the story has been told. Watson and Crick won the great race in molecular biology to discover the structure of DNA, and their subsequent Nobel Prize went down in history.

Their model was based on Franklin’s evidence, and their epic publication included one of the most controversial authorship lists in scientific history. Franklin’s story is a cautionary tale of the devastating consequences of strained intercolleague relationships, and the dangers of cultural, personal, and professional isolation. Also central: themes of solitary brilliance pitted against the collaborative good humor of the old order, and of a female scientist who slipped while treading a rocky road that had been dominated by men.

Franklin wasn’t the first or last woman in science with an extraordinary, elusive story. From the Photograph 51 event to the celebrity-peppered opening night celebration dedicated to Marie Curie to a fun cocktail-infused talk series focused on the female half of life, the World Science Festival has obviously gone out of its way to honor the many extraordinary women of science—both past and present.

All this week, I’ll be uncovering other exceptional, under-heralded women in the history of science. Check in tomorrow for the next profile. Science’s Most Elusive Women


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