Skip to content ↓

April 2021: Although our campus is closed to visitors, you don’t have to travel to 🌈 Cambridge to get a feel for MIT. Sign up today for an 🔮 online session or student-led tour.

MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

Rosalind Franklin and Kent State by Laura N. '09

Two more short book reviews and some news of my summer not (directly) relating to lifeguarding.

I warn you: this is a depressing entry.

Last week I finally finished reading Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I say “finally” because I’m pretty sure I actually bought the book at the MIT Press Bookstore the first time I ever visited the campus back in my junior year of high school. Anyway, the biography was great and from what I understand it’s considered the definitive biography of Franklin’s life. Everyone knows the basic story of Rosalind Franklin- she took the X-ray photographs that flipped Watson’s lightbulb switch regarding the structure of DNA and then proceeded to get no credit for the whole thing because [fill in conspiracy theory here, usually related to her gender]. History hasn’t been kind to Rosalind. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t even realize how good of a scientist she was until I read the book. Hell, I didn’t even realize she was a scientist. I never really thought about it much, but I’d somehow always had the impression that she was some kind of X-ray tech, when the truth was that she was considered a world authority on lots of subjects I recognized from 3.091 and developed her own preparation technique that allowed her to take the clearest X-ray photographs anyone had ever seen.

The biography is comprehensive, but of course the most interesting passages are those in which Maddox carefully reconstructs the frenzied weeks during which the mysteries of DNA were unravelled. Watson and Crick got access to Rosalind’s data and photographs in slightly sketchy ways- not truly and steadfastly unethical but not completely legit either. When they finally cracked the puzzle, they were left in a bit of a mess- they were dying to publish their findings quickly to get the credit for the discovery, but they weren’t easily able to explain how they figured it out, because they couldn’t refer to Rosalind’s unpublished data without raising some questions. So they threw in a generic thank you to the people at King’s College, even though most of the people at King’s didn’t even know that anyone outside their research group had access to their data.

Watson and Crick found her to be a rather disagreeable person, which Watson emphasised in his book, The Double Helix. While Maddox admits that Franklin was sometimes harsh and sarcastic (and I have to say this allowed yours truly to indentify with her more and to find it hard to fault her that without being a rather large hypocrite), she argues that Rosalind’s time at King’s was miserable, because no one there respected her. In fact, Rosalind caught on to one important fact before anyone else, but was ignored- in 1951, she claimed that the phosphates of the DNA chains should be located on the outside. Over a year later, after Watson and Crick had seen her photographs and determined that the structure was a helix, they were still struggling to get the whole thing to fit together just right. All of their early models had the phosphates lined up on the inside, which didn’t quite work. Later, they tried the other way around, mostly just for the hell of it. They’d completely missed the evidence that she had gathered which actually proved that the phosphates where on the outside. If they’d just collaborated with Rosalind legitimately…

The Double Helix is famous for portraying Franklin in a poor light (and also being rather sexist with such lines as “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab”). Interestingly enough, it seems as if everyone hated the novel. The book was originally going to be published by the Harvard University Press, but virtually every single person who is mentioned complained so loudly about the way the were portrayed that the Harvard Board of Overseers forced Watson to take his book elsewhere. According to Maurice Wilkins (the much less famous third guy who shared the Nobel with Watson and Crick), the book was “unfair to me, Dr. Crick and to almost everyone else mentioned except Professor Watson himself.”

All in all, a pretty good book. I found the beginning a little dry- a little overboard on mundane details of Rosalind’s early life. But once you get into the science part of it, some really interesting stuff emerges.

After that, I moved on to my next book. Because reading is my sole activity these days. I read The Kent State Coverup, an account of the trials brought against the Ohio National Guard from the point of view of the chief trail counsel for the plaintiffs. I’d already read books on the Kent State Shootings themselves. Basically, after a series of riots that trashed downtown Kent, Ohio, the governor sent in the National Guard to keep the peace on the Kent State Campus. On May 4, 1970, the Guard ordered an outdoor rally (protesting their own presence, nonetheless) to disperse. When the students didn’t follow the order, the Guardsmen opened fire on the students, wounding 9 and killing 4. Just think about that for a second. A bunch of National Guardsmen, armed with M1 Garand rifles, indiscriminately firing at a bunch of unarmed students for a total of 13 seconds. During the trial, the defense claimed that the students were trying to overtake the Guard, rushing at them, yelling things like “kill the pigs!” Nevermind that 2 of the 4 killed weren’t even attending the rally, but simply walking from one class to the next, or the fact that 8 of the victims were over 300 feet away when they were shot. Am I getting too political here? Sorry, it’s hard not to.

After the shootings, the survivors and parents had to deal with threatening and hateful mail and phone calls, because the average American thought that the students deserved what they got for being anti-establishment hippie Communists. Then they dragged themselves through this trial, where the judge did such absurd things as allow questioning as to the plaintiffs political beliefs, which is complete nonsense that would totally not fly in most courtrooms. The defendents were all universally cleared, leading the mother of one of the dead students to say that the verdict “gives license to the government to shoot anyone who doesn’t agree with them.” After an appeal was granted, the plaintiffs accepted a really lousy settlement instead of going through with the whole trial nonsense again.

As if that weren’t enough, the author of the book is basically a complete jerk (from New York, no surprise there) who thinks he’s God’s gift to trial law and is so densely biased himself that he “felt challenged to do [his] best in this hostile mid-American atmosphere.” In other words, he made a bunch of the other lawyers on his team hate him by taking charge because he wanted to see what it was like try to persuade all the rednecks on the jury.

In other news, I smashed my foot on the bottom of my grandparent’s pool at a family barbeque today, and now it hurts to walk.

I told you this was a depressing entry.

9 responses to “Rosalind Franklin and Kent State”

  1. Emily says:

    Watson is a total jerk

  2. thekeri says:

    There’s a movie – I think it’s called “The Race to the Double Helix” that’s all about the work done by Franklin and everyone at King’s College, and how Watson and Crick shamelessly stole – I mean, borrowed – some of their research in order to get to the structure of DNA. The fact that Franklin died of cancer just as people were beginning to recognize the huge part she had played in everything is really sad – not to mention the cancer was probably caused or accelerated by her work with X Rays and radiation.

    I think she should have gotten a Nobel Prize instead of Watson and Crick; since they don’t award those posthumously, I guess that’ll never happen.

    Before I start ranting like a loony about a subject I’m far too interested in, I’ll just shut up.

    And hurting your foot sucks.

  3. Stop hating on New York. Or else I’ll start hating on New Jersey and nobody will be happy.

    You also spelled ‘trial’ wrong like five times.

    And yes, Watson was a jerk.

    Hm, I’d never heard about the Kent State shootings. Now I have to look it up and read about it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Not that the Kent State shootings were in any way “ok,” its not like the Guardsmen were shooting “indiscriminately” at a bunch of innocent, peaceful protestors. The crowd had been destroying public and private property and causing the city to be generally unsafe. At that time and in that area, it seems unlikely that they had the police forces (quantity) necessary to even out the ratio of violent protestors to law enforcement officials without resulting to the use of firearms. Just remember that hindsight is often 20/20, and trial lawyers are often self interested.

  5. Laura says:

    Michael Borohovski- makes fun of me for silly spelling errors. Michael Borohovski- also from New York. Coincidence? I think not.

    Anonymous: The Guard was called into Kent because of the destruction of the downtown area in the days before the shooting. The next day Kent State students organized a rally to protest the presence of the Guard on campus, so yes, they did “indiscriminately” (in their own words, from the trial, they admitted to this) open fire on innocent protestors. Besides, throwing a rock through a store window does not give someone the right to shoot you in the head with a military rifle!

  6. Caroline says:

    Hey! Just thought I’d tell you that I’m going to be in Burton Conner for orientation! I’m wicked psyched. I think I’m in Burton 3? Should be a good time.

    I’m roommates with one of my friends from WTP too, which is cool.

    Hope to see you in a month or so!

  7. Sarab says:

    I have a question. We’re studying Magnetism now, and my professor says that the Earht’s Magnetic and Geographic poles are in the same hemsiphere but at an angle of 7-24 degrees.

    From what i can recall, the Earth’s Magnetic North and Geographic South are in the same hemisphere. University Phyiscs is not clear on this!

    Any help anyone?

    e-mail:- [email protected]

  8. Sarab says:

    Question:- Must I fill in my fathers name in the form. My parents are divorced and I would prefer not to?

    PS:- Try reading Watson and DNA. A less biased (I say) view of the matter of Rosalin Franklin

  9. Anonymous says:

    Oh, the injustice! Watsom really was a jerk. I actually never realized Rosalin’s contributions either until I read this blog. There’s another novel kind of dealing with the same subject, but it’s in Korean. It’s about a Korean scientist that worked with Einstein in Nuclear research, but he got stiffed because people are racist.