Thursday 25 July 2013

Rosalind Franklin was a top-notch technician - but not a real scientist


I've read reams about the discovery of DNA, and that was my conclusion.

Franklin was told what to do (take X-ray diffraction photos of DNA), she did it extremely competently (although she concentrated on the biologically uninteresting form of the molecule, presumably since she did not really appreciate why she was doing what she had been asked to do) - and having done the job, she did not understand what she had measured: could not interpret it.

In other words she was a top-notch technician, who needed to work under the supervision of a real scientist, like Maurice Wilkins.

However, Franklin, for personal reasons, refused to share and discuss her results with Wilkins, which was a pretty serious scientific sin. So her memory is tainted by that.


Note: Continuing on this curmudgeonly theme; I would also consider another feminist supposed hero of science - Dorothy Hodgkin - also not to be a real scientist but instead a top-notch technician. 

From her biography, she seems to have been working implicitly under the supervision of her extra-marital lover JD Bernal.

Bernal is universally acknowledged to be a multivalent genius (although a thoroughly reprehensible man with wickedness ranging from unrepentant pro-Stalinism to serial seductions). 

Bernal did not, however, get a Nobel Prize: while his technician-mistress did. 


Jonathan C said...

Can you please tell me where you found that information about Bernal? Your latter comment is extremely interesting to me for professional reasons and I want to investigate more. Thanks.

dearieme said...

Yeah, Rosie seemed determined not to discover the structure of DNA. You wonder how she even managed to get a PhD - perhaps her branch of the sciences was quicker than others to drop the demand that the PhD student should have shown herself capable of independent work by the end of her studies.

It's very odd: the most delightful part of supervising PhD students is when they take wing and make the project their own.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JC I got it from Ferry, Georgina (1998). Dorothy Hodgkin A Life. London: Granta Books. But I've read quite a bit by and about Bernal including Goldsmith, Maurice (1980). Sage: A Life of J. D. Bernal. London: Hutchinson.His womanising was well known - it was a perk of being a Leftist in an era of mostly faithful monogamy among the establishment.