Google has today commemorated what would have been the 93rd birthday of British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, born in 1920, who made critical contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.
Today’s stylised Google logo on the search engine’s homepage depicts Franklin herself, in cartoon form, examining a DNA strand with what seems to be X-ray vision.
The doodle gives Franklin superpowers, but the real story is that, while working as a research associate in the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College London, Franklin captured X-ray diffraction images of DNA, which led to the discovery of the double helix.
Sadly, Franklin suffered from ovarian cancer and died in 1958 at the age of 37. In 1962, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids, though Crick wrote in 1961 that the data used by this team to formulate their hypothesis on the structure of DNA was Franklin’s.
Franklin’s images of X-ray diffraction thus helped her contemporaries to understand how genetic information is passed on from one living thing to another. However, Franklin’s image depicted in today’s doodle, referred to as photograph 51, was shown by Wilkins to Watson without her knowledge or consent, shrouding the discovery in controversy and allegations that Franklin’s contribution was largely overlooked.
The subject of today’s doodle reminds us of the importance of revisiting the history of science in order to highlight the contributions of women who may have been overlooked or hidden in the background at the time. Siliconrepublic.com’s Women Invent Tomorrow campaign has done just that in listing the finalists for Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor competition – one of whom, Kathleen Lonsdale, is also an X-ray crystallographer.
Votes for Ireland’s Greatest Woman Inventor from young people aged 12 to 18 will put them in the running for a fantastic prize involving a trip to NASA’s Space Centre Houston, among other things. See the competition page for details.
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths