Bench Space

Mary Beard

  • Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry
    Granta, 425 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 167 5

Women scientists – even the most distinguished of them – have a notoriously hard time. In feminist mythology at least, plagiarism by their male colleagues, belated recognition (if recognition at all) and early death (something to do with all that radiation) regularly combine to outweigh the charisma that might attach to scientific discovery. The paradigm case is Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer at 37 and was posthumously written out of the story of the discovery of DNA, in which she had played a crucial part. James Watson’s outrageously self-heroising Double Helix systematically ridiculed and patronised ‘Rosy’s’ contributions to the work (‘Rosy’, needless to say, was a diminutive she never used herself), while at the same time portraying her as aggressive, ambitious, unsocialised, unimaginative and unfeminine. Her first appearance in The Double Helix sets the tone. Discussing the awkward relations between Franklin, a Cambridge graduate and post-doctoral crystallographer, and her London laboratory head, Maurice Wilkins, Watson writes:

By choice she did not emphasise her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of 31 her dresses showed all the imagination of English bluestocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother ... Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.

In the book’s epilogue, Watson offered a partial recantation (‘my initial impressions of her ... were often wrong’); but the mud stuck, as he must have known it would. And it prompted the predictable response a few years later, when Anne Sayre, in Rosalind Franklin and DNA, turned the arguments completely on their head to present her (just as misleadingly, I suspect) as the brains behind the whole DNA enterprise and a martyr to the cause of women’s science.

The battles are rarely so public, the stakes rarely so high as they were in the race for DNA. But in account after account of scientific women, we find much the same themes, albeit in a lower key. In the case of Honor Fell, a pioneer in tissue culture and the mastermind behind the development of the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, ‘the honours due to her took some time to materialise’ (as Joan Mason’s biographical essay nicely puts it). The same was true of Marjory Stephenson, the distinguished microbiologist, who worked in Cambridge for decades before being given a University lecturership in 1947, having been made one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society two years earlier (she, too, was to die of cancer, in 1948, aged 57). Fellowships of the Royal Society had been open to women since 1919, but in a series of ignominious wrangles it managed to fail to elect a woman for more than twenty years. In the end, J.B.S. Haldane, writing in the Daily Worker, had to stoop – ironically – to the argument that if they could offer fellowships to Indians, surely they could not ‘exclude women indefinitely’.

The women themselves have sometimes been part of the problem. Or, at least, male scientific culture has succeeded in disseminating its masculinist norms among female scientists. Honor Fell, for example, insisted that, for a woman, a successful career in experimental science was incompatible with marriage, let alone motherhood. (There still are women scientists in Cambridge who can be heard to argue along these lines – not infrequently in the same breath as denying the existence of any discrimination against women in science.) Rosalind Franklin’s pressure for change seems to have been limited to well-grounded but ineffectual complaints against the segregated common rooms for academic staff at King’s College, London: the women’s drab and pokey, the men’s predictably well-appointed. She may have been just as unworldly and out of touch as Watson’s cruelly depicted victim.

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