Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology. There are many reasons why one should engage in such celebrations, but for me the most important one is that inspiring female role models are still badly needed in areas that continue to be (for the most part) extremely male-dominated. This is no longer the case in e.g. biology or even medicine, but as reported earlier, philosophy remains one of the areas with the lowest percentage of PhDs obtained by women.
Therefore, I had suggested in a previous post that, in this spirit, we could give the Ada Lovelace Day a ‘broader’ interpretation and also celebrate inspiring female role models in other male-dominated areas such as philosophy. My own Ada Lovelace day post, however, will be about a scientist: Rosalind Franklin. I have personal reasons to celebrate Franklin’s achievements, as I currently hold a position named after her. A few years ago, the University of Groningen decided to create a university-wide program to promote the position of women among its faculty, and thus created the Rosalind Franklin fellowships:
In order to raise the presence of women at the highest levels of the institution, the University of Groningen has initiated the prestigious Rosalind Franklin Fellowship programme. Female academics who aim for a career towards full professorship in a European top research university, are invited to apply for tenure track positions.
There are Rosalind Franklin Fellowships in every single department/faculty in Groningen (some still to be filled), and I am the lucky occupant of this position at the Faculty of Philosophy. It gives me great satisfaction to work at a university which values the presence of women so highly, and which is not afraid to engage in affirmative action to increase its contingent of female (full) professors (the Netherlands has one of the lowest percentages of female full professors in Western Europe, and the RF fellowships are essentially a 'fast-track' path towards full professorship).
But enough about Groningen, and more about Rosalind Franklin herself. She made decisive contributions to the discovery of the double helix structure of the DNA with her X-ray diffraction images, but most of the credit for the discovery was given to Crick and Watson. Franklin’s images had been shown to Watson without her permission by Maurice Wilkins (who maintained an ongoing animosity towards Franklin), and according to Crick himself, her data were the data they actually used. But Franklin’s contribution was only hinted at in the famous Watson & Crick 1953 paper. It is worth mentioning that Watson, Crick and Wilkins received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962, four years after Franklin's death at age 37 from ovarian cancer. (It is quite likely that she developed cancer as a result of inadequate radiation safety measures.) With her premature death, we missed our chance to witness the many more wonderful discoveries that this remarkably talented scientist was bound to make.
Two books offer very different accounts of the discovery of the DNA structure: James Watson's The Double Helix and Anne Sayre's Rosalind Franklin and DNA. These events, and Franklin’s role in them, remain one of the most controversial episodes in the recent history of science. UPDATE: Jeff Ketland draws my attention to a more recent biography of Franklin, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. Here is a review of it in the Guardian, which also emphasizes that Franklin's male colleagues treated her very unprofessionally.
This was just one of the many difficulties that Rosalind Franklin encountered in her career as a female scientist, at a time when science was still almost exclusively a ‘male thing’. She attended one of the few girls’ schools in London where physics and chemistry were taught. Her father was vehemently opposed to the idea of her becoming a scientist, but Franklin was determined to follow her ‘calling’. A famous anecdote has it that, when Maurice Wilkins returned from a period away from the King's College laboratory and met Franklin, he mistook her for a technical assistant.
There is no doubt that the climate for women in science and in academia in general is now significantly better than in Rosalind Franklin’s time. At her time, only women of exceedingly strong determination managed to succeed in scientific careers (Marie Curie is another famous example). But as we know, things are still not nearly as easy for women as is often thought; the What it’s like… blog gives a glimpse of the situations women encounter in philosophy, and analogous situations are certainly frequent in several other fields. Ideally, one shouldn’t have to be as thick-skinned and determined as Franklin was in order to succeed in academia (she persevered in her investigations in spite of the 1953 DNA affair), but her life and work remain a source of inspiration for all of us.