Women in science – Rosalind Franklin’s legacy

 Studying DNA may be in my genes, literally. At the age of 14, I became fascinated by a book on the genetic revolution, and at the same time discovered that Rosalind Franklin was a distant relative through my maternal great-grandmother. I was hooked. Following eight years of graduate and post-graduate study in Genetics, I became a Research Associate in Genetics at King’s College London (KCL) where, 56 years earlier, Rosalind Franklin, also in her early 30’s and also a Research Associate, produced her now famous X-ray diffraction images of DNA. The images, and in particular ‘photograph 51’, were shown to James Watson, and are now known to have been key in Watson and Crick’s breakthrough model of DNA in 1953 which was to change forever our knowledge of genetics and inheritance.
Rosalind Franklin

The author of the article and distant relative of Rosalind Franklin, Juliette Harris

Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer, just four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for elucidating the three-dimensional molecular structure of DNA. It will never be known for sure whether, had she lived, she would have shared the prize, since the prize is not awarded posthumously.

Photograph 51
Photograph 51





Her name is currently in the limelight, as Nicole Kidman recently starred as Rosalind Franklin in the West End play “Photograph 51”. A number of references during to the play allude to the dPhotograph 51ifficulty she had in being a female scientist at the time, including being addressed repeatedly by her colleagues as “Ms Franklin” instead of “Dr..” Numerous books and articles have accused the scientific establishment of not giving Rosalind Franklin the recognition she deserved for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and have cited her as an example of sexism and discrimination of women in science. In contrast, close family members of Rosalind Franklin have recently said that “she would have been astonished to be cast as a feminist icon because she never considered herself a victim of sexism.” Her family wish her to be remembered as she was – a talented scientist who loved her work.

However, there is no doubt that there are women who have experienced sexism and obstruction to career progression in academia, with only 22% at professorial level being women (Higher Education Statistics Agency). In response, many universities, KCL among them, are showing greater commitment to advancing the careers of women academics and researchers in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Athena SWAN is a Charter, established in 2005, which recognises excellence in an institution’s commitment to gender equality. KCL has been a member of the Athena SWAN Charter since 2007, gained its Bronze award in 2008 and is now actively working towards its silver award, which shows the strength of its commitment to women in STEMM.


I joined KCL in the same year as it became a member of the Athena Swan Charter and have worked with colleagues, including the female head of the Division of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, Professor Gillian Bates, to ensure a strong career development pathway for women. We are proud that in our Division alone, the number of women at professorial levels is 35%, higher than the sector average of 22%. Although academic institutions still have some way to go, it is clear that the advancement of women in science has never been so high on the agenda.

We are looking forward to a new generation of women scientists, who, like Rosalind Franklin, can love their work and accomplish great things, while being fully supported by their Institution, achieve a work-life balance that allows them to reach their potential, while being fully recognised for their work and contributions to scientific advancement.

Juliette Harris, PhD