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Saturday, November 23, 2019

Of Women In Science, And A Play About Rosalind Franklin



Back in the 1990s, I wrote my second book, Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science, a children’s book about the history of women who have made a difference to discovery and invention over the centuries. Many of them had to do it in secret or in surroundings that didn’t give them the equipment they needed. Some of them - like Rosalind Franklin, the heroine of the play I’ve just gone to see - were hidden from history while males got the credit. It’s not that there weren’t books that included them. In fact, when I was researching Rosalind Franklin for my own book, I read a bio of her, written by a cousin. But you had to know what you were looking for. If you were an ordinary reader, especially a child, you might be under the impression that Marie Curie was the only woman scientist in existence. I’ve recently come across a new children’s book on the history of science and it still only featured Madame Curie! It didn’t even mention that her daughter Irene was also a Nobel Prize winner, or her granddaughter Helene a nuclear physicist.

Fortunately, I’m a librarian. I did know how to look it all up.

 I wrote this book in the early days of the Internet, way before Google, so I used the State  Library for most of my research. The children’s section of my local library supplied me with general books about science, which I needed as a layman, because you can’t just write biographies without explaining what these women achieved. And yes, I used the Internet about once a week. You had to buy an hour of use at the Internet cafes which were springing up in those days. My book did pretty well, even getting a Notable in the CBCA awards, a shortlisting in the Clayton’s awards and even a short but positive review in New Scientist, plus I got an invitation to speak to a group of high-IQ kids at their Friday night meeting. It was only about a year ago that someone’s children’s book on women in science ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. I admit to grinding my teeth in envy. My book sold about 6-7000 copies in Australia, a respectable number, but hardly  NYT bestseller status. If it had been written in the last few years...who knows? It would certainly have been possible to give it more promotion.

Rosalind Franklin. Wikimedia Commons


Ada Byron Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, now has her own international day in October, and most have heard of Caroline Herschel, astronomer sister of William Herschel, George III’s Astronomer Royal, but even now, when we should know better, we are told all about James Watson and Francis Crick, the “discoverers of the structure of DNA” and not a word about Rosalind Franklin, whose work they used to finish their own and rush into publication ahead of her, gaining them the Nobel Prize, along with her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who showed them the notes they needed to correct the glitch they had made. According to the bio written by Dr Franklin’s cousin, the problem was that she was so careful in her work that she refused to publish till she was absolutely certain. So she died of cancer at the age of 37 and they got the prize, and the only one of the three who bothered to mention her at their Nobel presentation was Wilkins. They don’t give Nobel Prizes posthumously; we’ll never know if she would have been recognised if she had been alive. I’d like to think she would, but possibly not. 

So this afternoon I went to see Photograph 51, a play about Rosalind Franklin by Anna Ziegler, at the Fairfax Studio in Melbourne. I see from the play’s Wikipedia entry that the role was first played by Nicole Kidman - wow! This afternoon, however, it was played by local actor Nadine Garner, best known within Australia, and a fine actor. The characters were Rosalind Franklin, Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Ray Gosling, her PhD student, and Don Caspar, an American scientist and admirer who asked her for photographic help in his PhD and came over to work with her. He and Watson are both still alive, as of this writing. I hadn’t realised how very young Watson was at the time, but it explains why he is still around. He is shown as a brilliant but annoying boy child; you just want to stomp on him, especially when he spends a lecture of hers commenting on her appearance instead of listening to her(I think those comments were in his book). Of course, I was biased... 

Rosalind Franklin University Of Medicine And Science, US. Wikimedia  Commons


It was a wonderful afternoon at the theatre and my sister also enjoyed it, though she wasn’t familiar with the story. And I enjoyed it because I was familiar with it! 

My book Potions To Pulsars is out of print now, but I recently unearthed several copies. I’ll give away one precious copy to one commenter, using a name-out-of-a-hat method. If you are commenting below, let me know if you’re interested in winning a copy, by saying “Yes, please.” I’ll give it a week before announcing the winner, and as it’s a slim volume you can enter even if you are outside Australia. 


Good luck! 

15 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Your post is timely for me as I just watched the film Hidden Figures for the first time. Throughout history the contributions of women have been ignored and downplayed. Hopefully the future will be better.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh! You’ve only just discovered Hidden Figures? Wonderful film! I believe they hired women to do that job because they were cheaper than men. Nice that John Glenn was shown as respectful to them, as he was one of those who wanted women kept out of the astronaut program. If he was at least nice to the “computers” that’s something, anyway. He did work with a woman on the space shuttle later and acted the fanboy towards Valentina Tereshkova when they met!

Did you notice, BTW, that the mean engineer was played by the actor who did Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory?

AJ Blythe said...

How interesting!

And I love Hidden Figures (and I did note "Sheldon"). I know they crunched the timeline so all 3 were seen to be working there at the same time, but a fabulous movie nonetheless.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Agreed, it was! I do have the book, which is non fiction, but haven’t got far into it yet.

Hels said...

Watson and Crick were very clever and deserving of their Nobel. But there were two great dilemmas. Firstly their use of Ros­a­lind Franklin's graphic evidence of DNA structure, WITHOUT Franklin’s knowledge or permission. Secondly each Nobel prize could only be given to three team members - and Franklin was always recorded as the fourth.

I wonder if it is possible to write a play or a novel that can make us feel better, or more insightful, about the way the Nobel world treated Rosalind Franklin.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Write away, Hels, but you won’t make me, at least, feel better about it! What happened was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Just adding, if it happened today, there would be a scandal, and it would be all over social media. It was a lot easier, in those days, to make the woman “the fourth member”.

Jane said...

Yes Please. I'd love a copy for my niece who wants to be a scientist. You said there was only one bio of Rosalind and I think this is part of the problem. Chaps do helpful publicty for other chaps by writing about them in articles and novels etc. and thus those chaps become household names as a result. They are just less interested in writing about women. Now women have come out of the home and write more books hopefully there will be more books about other women. And now chaps are also aware of these lost women scientists they are starting to write more books about women as well. I think Ada Lovelace is in the process of becoming a household name in just this way. And this play will contribute to something similar for Rosalind Franklin. Arts contributing to science.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Jane! There may have been more bios since then, but this was in the 1990s. And it was written by a woman, who was a cousin of the subject anyway.

Jane, email me(the email address is under review policy and contact) with your full name and address, and your niece’s name so I can sign it. I hope your niece likes it.

Melanie said...

This is an area I love. When you're growing up, it feels like history is just 'men did everything until the suffragettes.' My love of history comes from finding the stories of these women. Ada Lovelace is one of my all-time favourites. I still haven't seen Hidden Figures because I'm currently reading the book which is just incredible. Thanks for your post! I went and checked out your book on Amazon - the blurb is so good it makes me want to read a children's book XD

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Melanie! I’d be delighted to send a copy of my book to either you or Jane, whichever emails me with an address first. For whichever of you misses out, I’d be surprised if you can’t find it in ABEBooks.

Roland Clarke said...

A late comment, Sue - sorry. I've always been appalled at the way women's contributions have been sidelined, whether in science or even the arts. One of my ancestor's was the sister of Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer at a time when women were meant to be 'seen not heard'. My admiration for 'pioneering' women continues with two research books on my desk: Women Heroes of World War II and A Thousand Sister: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in WWII.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Roland! Wow - you are related to Elizabeth Fry? Well, at least she made the history books. I wrote a children’s book about the history of spies and there were so many women, my editor asked me plaintively if there were any male spies during the war, to give a bit of balance! ;-) I did find some.

I’m thinking about actress Hedy Lamarr, who co-created something for communications between submarines, to keep messages from being cracked. It eventually became the basis of Bluetooth, but they didn’t use it till AFTER the patent ran out, and meanwhile they suggested the little lady could raise money for the war effort by selling kisses. Which she did, by the way. There was a film about her, Bombshell, which showed her son going up to accept her award for contributions to science. In the middle of it, she rang his mobile and he was shown saying “Yes, Mum, I’m doing it now...” The film ended with an animation showing all the technology we owe to her(she used to do her science at home, after long workdays as a film star). What a woman!

Roland Clarke said...

Hedy Lamarr was an amazing lady who too few know of from her non-acting work. So, far more than a stunning screen idol. I haven't seen 'Bombshell' - yet. Is your book on spies available still?

As for Elizabeth Fry, I've been proud to be related to her for most of my life - through my Quaker heritage. Her father, John Gurney was my fifth great-grandfather as her sister Hannah married my fourth great-grandfather - he's in the group beside Elizabeth Fry on the old British five-pound note.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Roland! An amazing background indeed. Don’t get the new film Bombshell mixed up with the Lamarr documentary- not the same. You might need to find it in streaming or on DVD.
My book is in the US under the title of This Book Is Bugged. It’s now in print on demand only, so you will need to order it from your local bookshop. If they can’t get it, I do have some copies I bought - email me at the address on this site.