#6: Rosalind Franklin
The Rosalind Franklin Award is given by The Royal Society “to support the promotion of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” That’s high praise, and yet still just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rosalind Franklin.
At a time when being both Jewish and a woman carried serious personal and professional risks in the sciences, she became an example of overcoming adversity by nevertheless conducting her research and forever changing the way we view the very building blocks of humanity.
Rosalind Franklin was born to a wealthy British-Jewish family at a time when Anti-Semitism was sweeping Europe.
Franklin’s family helped other Jewish families fleeing Hitler and the Nazis settle in Britain. She went to college and received a first-class education from King’s College which, in the early 1950s, according to biographer Anne Fayre, “was not distinguished for the welcome that it offered to women.” Sexism dogged Franklin throughout her career and would continue to do so after her death.
Even so, and even with her tragic death at the age of just 37 from ovarian cancer, Rosalind Franklin exemplified how overcoming adversity can sometimes boil down to raw intellect and determination.
Despite her all-too-brief career, and the slander she faced as a woman working in what was then—and in many ways still is—a supposedly “male-dominated” field, Franklin is responsible in part for, among other things, analyzing the structure of coal, graphite, viruses and, most groundbreaking of all, DNA.
In 1952, a team under Rosalind Franklin’s watch was responsible for what is now known as “Photo 51”—a photograph which gave humanity its first concrete glimpse into the way DNA is structured and organized. The double-helix we all learned about in biology class? It was the photograph taken under Franklin’s supervision and the subsequent analysis of herself and colleagues which helped the famous duo of Watson and Crick develop their Nobel Prize-winning explanation and model of how base pairs connect and form that double-helix DNA structure. It was like discovering not just the original sheet music and notes from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, but understanding how it all fit together into an impeccable Ode to Joy.
Sadly, Rosalind Franklin received none of the accolades and honors which were her due. As stated, she, like Marie Curie before her, she died of cancer before she could be considered for the Nobel Prize. What’s more, there is significant controversy over the degree to which Watson and Crick or other scientists used her work with due credit.
While her Jewish background may have complicated the first years of her life and certainly impacted them with the coming of WWII, her being a woman at that time probably led to her not receiving the credit she deserved, and still does, for changing the way in which we view the world, and ourselves.
Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and scores of great Jewish scientists overcame extreme odds to succeed in the era in which they did. Marie Curie had to face undue skepticism and sexism for simply being a woman, and is still considered one of the true titans of science.
Rosalind Franklin had to contend with being both Jewish and female at a time and in a field where being either could be a severe obstacle. For a lesser person, both together might have rendered matters impossible.
Franklin, however, in her own time and for all time, exemplified what overcoming adversity means by not only never letting those labels stand in her way but, indeed, never treating them as obstacles so much as simply a part of herself—DNA and all.
There are two parts to that term, overcoming adversity. It can be easy to recognize adversity—even when some choose to ignore it. It’s easy for us now to recognize the physical adversity Jim Abbott and Ray Charles both faced, or the persecution and fear of execution faced by Dmitri Shostakovich and Aurora Mardiganian, or the discrimination Maya Angelou and Rosalind Franklin had to contend with.
Nevertheless, they were all able to live up to the second part of that mantra—they were able to “overcome,” and that can make all the difference. It did for the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously asserted “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
It did for Martin Luther King, who popularized the phrase “We shall overcome” during the Civil Rights era. And it certainly applies for all six of these remarkable individuals, who exemplify not just what overcoming adversity means, but the enrichment, inspiration and wonder it imparts unto us all.
Which story of the overcoming adversity inspired you the most? Do you have a personal story to share with us?