For Women’s History Month – five women who influenced the science of evolution

Next up, I offer some women of science.

Rosalind Franklin:

Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses,coal, and graphite. Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her DNA work posthumously achieved the most profound impact as DNA plays a central role in biology, as it carries the genetic information that is passed from parents to their offsprings….

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA while at King’s College, London, which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. According to Francis Crick, her data and research were key in determining the structure. Watson confirmed this opinion in his own statement at the opening of the King’s College London Franklin–Wilkins building in 2000 and formulating Crick and James Watson‘s 1953 model regarding the structure of DNA. Franklin’s images of X-ray diffraction, confirming the helical structure of DNA, were imprudently shown to Watson by Wilkins.

Unpublished drafts of her papers (written just as she was arranging to leave King’s College London) show that she had independently determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix and the location of the phosphate groups on the outside of the structure. Moreover, it was a report of Franklin’s that convinced Crick and Watson that the backbones had to be on the outside, which was crucial since before this both they and Linus Pauling had independently generated non-illuminating models with the chains inside and the bases pointing outwards. However, her work was published third, in the series of three DNA Nature articles, led by the paper of Watson and Crick which only hinted at her contribution to their hypothesis. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Watson has suggested that Franklin would have ideally been awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Wilkins.

After finishing her portion of the work on DNA, with her own research team at Birkbeck College, Franklin led pioneering work on the molecular structures of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus. Continuing her research, her team member, and later her beneficiary Aaron Klug went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.

If you read between the lines here, you will find that her work first discovering that DNA is a double helix was shown to a man without her permission (I like how Wikipedia so gently puts it – her groundbreaking work was “imprudently” shown by one man to another; I think what they mean to say is that her discoveries were stolen), that two men went ahead and quickly published it before she could, and that they received credit, winning the Nobel Prize. Or, as another site, this one geared towards women’s history puts it (and I deliberately include both accounts here to point out the differences between how Wikipedia covers it and how a women’s history site covers it):

Working mainly with x-ray crystallography, Rosalind Franklin was able to determine that a molecule of DNA was double stranded with the nitrogen bases in the middle with a sugar backbone on the outsides. Her pictures also proved the structure was a sort of twisted ladder shape called a double helix. She was preparing a paper explaining this structure when her work was shown to James Watson and Francis Crick, allegedly without her permission. While her paper was published at the same time as Watson and Crick’s paper, she only gets a mention in the history of DNA. At the age of 37, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer so she was not awarded a Nobel Prize for her work like Watson and Crick.

Without Franklin’s contribution, Watson and Crick would not have been able to come up with their paper about the structure of DNA as soon as they did. Knowing the structure of DNA and more about how it works has aided evolution scientists in countless ways. Rosalind Franklin’s contribution helped lay the groundwork for other scientists to discover how DNA and evolution are linked.

Mary Leakey:

Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996) was a British paleoanthropologist who discovered the first fossilised Proconsul skull, an extinct ape now believed to be ancestral to humans. She also discovered the robust Zinjanthropus skull at Olduvai Gorge. For much of her career she worked with her husband, Louis Leakey, in the Olduvai Gorge, in eastern Africa, uncovering the tools and fossils of ancient hominines. Leakey developed a system for classifying the stone tools found at Olduvai. She discovered the Laetoli footprints. It was here, at the Laetoli site, that she discovered Hominin fossils that were more than 3.75 million years old.

During her career, Leakey discovered fifteen new species of other animals, and one new genus.

Jane Goodall:

(Born April 3, 1934)

Jane Goodall was born in London and is best known for her work with chimpanzees. Studying the familial interactions and behaviors of chimpanzees, Goodall collaborated with Louis and Mary Leakey while studying in Africa. Her work with the primates, along with the fossils the Leakeys discovered, helped piece together how early hominids may have lived. With no formal training, Goodall started out as a secretary for the Leakeys. In return, they paid for her education at Cambridge University and invited her to help research chimpanzees and collaborate with them on their early human work.

Mary Anning:

Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847) was a British fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Her work contributed to fundamental changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric lifeand the history of the Earth.

Mary Anning searched for fossils in the area’s Blue Lias cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. It was dangerous work, and she nearly lost her life in 1833 during a landslide that killed her dog, Tray. Her discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton correctly identified; the first two plesiosaur skeletons found; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces. She also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. When geologist Henry De la Beche painted Duria Antiquior, the first widely circulated pictorial representation of a scene from prehistoric life derived from fossil reconstructions, he based it largely on fossils Anning had found, and sold prints of it for her benefit.

Anning did not fully participate in the scientific community of 19th-century Britain, who were mostly Anglican  gentlemen. She struggled financially for much of her life. Her family was poor, and her father, a cabinetmaker, died when she was eleven.

She became well known in geological circles in Britain, Europe, and America, and was consulted on issues of anatomy as well as about collecting fossils. Nonetheless, as a woman, she was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London and she did not always receive full credit for her scientific contributions. Indeed, she wrote in a letter: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” The only scientific writing of hers published in her lifetime appeared in the Magazine of Natural History in 1839, an extract from a letter that Anning had written to the magazine’s editor questioning one of its claims.

After her death in 1847, her unusual life story attracted increasing interest. Charles Dickens wrote of her in 1865 that “[t]he carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.” In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Barbara McClintock:

Barbara McClintock (June 16, 1902 – September 2, 1992), was an American scientist and one of the world’s most distinguished cytogeneticists, who won the 1983 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine. McClintock received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927. There she started her career as the leader in the development of maize cytogenetics, the focus of her research for the rest of her life. From the late 1920s, McClintock studied chromosomes and how they change during reproduction in maize. Her work was groundbreaking; she developed the technique for visualizing maize chromosomes and used microscopic analysis to demonstrate many fundamental genetic ideas. One of those ideas was the notion of genetic recombination by crossing-over during meiosis—a mechanism by which chromosomes exchange information. She produced the first genetic map for maize, linking regions of the chromosome to physical traits. She demonstrated the role of the telomere and centromere, regions of the chromosome that are important in the conservation of genetic information. She was recognized among the best in the field, awarded prestigious fellowships, and elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944.

During the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock discovered transposition and used it to demonstrate that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. She developed theories to explain the suppression and expression of genetic information from one generation of maize plants to the next. Due to skepticism of her research and its implications, she stopped publishing her data in 1953.

Later, she made an extensive study of the cytogenetics and ethnobotany of maize races from South America. McClintock’s research became well understood in the 1960s and 1970s, as other scientists confirmed the mechanisms of genetic change and genetic regulation that she had demonstrated in her maize research in the 1940s and 1950s. Awards and recognition for her contributions to the field followed, including the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, awarded to her in 1983 for the discovery of genetic transposition; she is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

Next up is today in women’s history:

March 11

1198: Marie of France, Countess of Champagne died: daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France; full sister of Alix, Countess of Blois

1702: Elizabeth Mallett established the first English daily newspaper, using the name “E. Mallett”

1708: Queen Anne, for the last time a British monarch did so, vetoed legislation

1829: Sarah Dolley born: physician and woman suffrage activist

1869: Beatrice Winser born: educator who opposed protective legislation for women

1872: Kathleen Clarice Groom born: writer

1893: Wanda Hazel Gág born: author, illustrator, known especially as author and illustrator of Millions of Cats and The ABC Bunny

1896: Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson born: writer using the name Pearl Rivers

1898: Dorothy Gish born: actress; sister of Lillian Gish

1903: Dorothy Schiff Thackery born: owner and publisher of the New York Post; philanthropist, reformer

1903: Der Wald,, an opera written by Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the first woman-written opera performed in the US

1922: Madeline Houston McWhinnery born: founded the First Women’s Bank in the United States

1923: Agatha Barbara born: President of Malta 1982-1987

1923: Louise Brough born: tennis player

1946: Patty Waters born: jazz singer

1952: Susan Richardson born: actress

1993: Janet Reno was confirmed by the United States Senate as Attorney General; when sworn in the next day, she became the first woman to hold that office

1994: first ordination of women priests in the Church of England (the Church voted to ordain women on November 10, 1992)

Christian Feast Day: Saint Áurea of San Millán (1043 – 1070),  Alberta of Agen (died 286)

Finally, I’ve been trying to include quotes from women, but I found this one from a man a little while ago and my jaw dropped. This is from a New York Times book review of Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying” in which the female protagonist has lots of sex with random partners including total strangers whose names she never learns. The review was written by one Christopher Lehmann-Haupt:

“I can’t remember ever before feeling quite so free to identify my own feelings with those of a female protagonist – which would suggest that Isadora Wing is really more of a person than a woman.”

Wooow! We’ve come a long way, baby. That would not fly today.

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