By: Darby Kendall
A quick Google search,“Who discovered DNA’s structure,” yields three names: James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. Rosalind Franklin, who played an invaluable role in the discovery, isn’t listed – not because Google is sexist, but because she was never awarded recognition for her work.
Although Rosalind Franklin, born today in 1920, was the research associate who took the iconic Photo 51, an image x-ray diffraction which simultaneously altered and progressed all that was then known about the structure of DNA, she did not receive credit for the contribution during her lifetime. The Nobel Prize for discovering the double helix went to three of her male colleagues in 1962 instead, four years after Franklin’s death by ovarian cancer.
Unfortunately, her story is not a rare one for women in science. Although the numbers of women in scientific fields are gradually improving, we still have a long way to go in recognizing the achievements of female scientists, especially those who worked before the turn of the century. In a push to further that awareness of women’s contributions to scientific knowledge, here are four more scientists who deserve some recognition for their amazing discoveries.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who, like Franklin, made a monumental discovery in her field that later led to a Nobel Prize given to her supervisor. As a doctoral student at Cambridge, Burnell began assisting in the construction of a radio telescope designed to study quasars, luminous sources of electromagnetic energy. While studying her records, she noticed a signal she was tracking pulsed with great frequency, so much so to the point of irregularity. Burnell’s noticing of this unusual signal later led to the discovery of pulsars, stars which emit electromagnetic radiation. Burnell has since stated that she’s okay with the fact that she didn’t receive the 1974 Nobel Prize, saying it is uncommon for students to receive credit for such discoveries, but nonetheless, this incredibly smart astrophysicist warrants a lot of respect.
Alice Evans discovered possible bacterial contamination in raw milk, leading to an increased emphasis on pasteurization. In 1910, Evans became the first female scientist to work for the USDA’s Bureau of Animal Husbandry, conducting research for the dairy division. During her work, she found that a bacterial infection carried in cows could pass onto humans via milk, and cause undulating fevers. Evans published her findings in 1918, but her recommendations on pasteurization to prevent the infection were not taken seriously until other scientists found the same conclusions in the 1920s. She realized one of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century, and broke countless barriers as both a woman and a scientist. Let’s all raise a glass of legally-required pasteurized milk to Alice Evans.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was an astrophysicist and astronomer who, as a Ph.D student in 1925, essentially determined what stars are made of. Her doctoral dissertation outlined the previously-unconfirmed wealth of hydrogen and helium in stars, which led to her becoming the first person to earn a Ph.D in astronomy from Radcliffe College. During the reviewal of her dissertation, astronomer Henry Norris Russell advised that Payne leave out the conclusion that the Sun is made of mainly hydrogen, since this claim had never before been made; Payne followed his advice and left it out. Ironically, four years later Russell came to the same conclusion himself, and published his findings, with only minor credit to Norris for her initial discovery. After the disappointing affair, Payne continued her work as a badass astronomer, studying the structure of the Milky Way and inspiring countless other women to enter the scientific community.
Nettie Stevens made the monumental discovery regarding the crucial relationship between chromosomes and sex. We have her to thank for knowing the differences between X and Y chromosomes. Stevens, an American geneticist, realized during her study of insect reproduction that the 23rd pair of chromosomes determines sex, a fact that is taught today in even the most basic biology classes. She made the discovery in 1906, and her findings provided important backing to Mendelian theories of inheritance, a similarly universally accepted theory in the biology world today. Rather than receive recognition for her findings though, the Nobel Prize for discovering the role chromosomes play in heredity was given to Thomas Hunt Morgan, an ex-colleague of Stevens who previously dismissed her findings. However, Stevens was still regarded highly in her field, and Morgan himself described her glowingly in a recommendation letter, saying “of the graduate students that I have had during the last twelve years I have had no one that was as capable and independent in research as Miss Stevens.”
So let’s just take a moment today to give these badass ladies a round of applause, and remember, as the always-dry Rosalind Franklin said, “science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”