When I was asked to review a podcast about Dr Rosalind Franklin for BioNews, the name was definitely familiar but I needed to google her to remind myself that she was a researcher and chemist, most known for her work in the discovery of the structures of DNA, RNA and viruses.
Although I can try and excuse myself slightly with the fact that I am not from the UK, the fact that I had to look up this scientist perhaps testifies to the fact that for many years, Dr Franklin's contributions did not receive the same attention as her scientific peers. Her peers included Dr Francis Crick and Dr James Watson who were celebrated for their work on the structure of DNA – which was in fact based on Franklin's discoveries – and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1962.
Since her death at the early age of 37 in 1958, Dr Franklin has received a wealth of posthumous recognition, especially for her work on DNA structure, which was less recognised during her lifetime compared to her other discoveries. To mark that 2020 is 100 years since her birth, the Franklin Institute has set out to celebrate the life of Dr Franklin by publicising various pieces about her life and work, including a podcast series where episode one and two are already available.
Episode one revolves around the life of Dr Franklin and includes an interview with 90-year old Jennifer Glynn, Franklin's sister, who is ten years her junior. It is a pleasure listening to Glynn's voice, full of character and experience, it brings the podcast to life. The account of Dr Franklin's life from the perspective of someone close to her is supplemented by a more fact-based account presented by science journalist Izzy Clark and quotes from Dr Franklin's own letters. Combined, these elements give an interesting insight into the life and character of Dr Franklin.
We hear about her childhood in Notting Hill Gate where Dr Franklin grew up in an upper middle class family that fostered a sense of the value of constructive discussions that went on to be formative in the way Dr Franklin developed ideas and were present in the scientific community.
Dr Franklin's parents encouraged their daughters to receive a good education, similar to their sons. After finishing at St Pauls Girls' School, Dr Franklin went on to read natural sciences at the University of Cambridge. Following graduation, Dr Franklin carried out research for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association and obtained a doctoral degree, but it was the following years spent researching and learning x-ray techniques in a coal laboratory in Paris, France that were, according to Glynn, the happiest years of her life.
The podcast goes on to address the later years in Dr Franklin's life and ends with her death from ovarian cancer, just 37 years old.
Although it is evident that Dr Franklin was a pioneer for women in science, Glynn tells us that she was never interested in taking on such a role. The podcast describes how she went from the Paris laboratory where there was an open-minded environment without discrimination, to joining King's College London where she felt isolated and not allowed in the mens' common room.
The account of Dr Franklin gives the impression of a deeply engaged scientist who brought home live polio virus to live in the family's fridge. It is details such as these that bring the story of Dr Franklin to life. Another interesting aspect is when the podcast tells us of Dr Franklin's reaction to the celebration of Dr Crick and Dr Watson whose discoveries depended on her work, and how upset her family were when Dr Crick published a book ten years after her death, which they believed made a caricature of her. The podcast gives a good insight into Dr Franklin and not least how the people closest to her knew her, despite not fully understanding until later how significant a scientist she was. Inviting Glynn to give her story about her sister is particularly what makes the podcast worth listening to.
The awareness that knowing the fundamentals of a virus is essential for the ability to combat it is as relevant as ever – we all know the structural outline of one particular virus these days – and the podcast reminds us that this knowledge is only 70 years old. The discoveries Dr Franklin made about viral structure brings an extra layer to the relevance of celebrating her work this year and the podcast does this in an interesting and informing way. I am looking forward to download the second episode.