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Hospital campaigner: DNA pioneer foolish to describe my aunt as a ‘loser’

James Watson reportedly made comments about scientist Rosalind Franklin during talk at a French university

08 June, 2018 — By Richard Osley

Scientist Rosalind Franklin and niece Shirley

ONE of the main campaigners who helped save the Whittington Hospital’s accident and emergency department has leapt to the defence of her aunt – the unsung scientist Rosalind Franklin – after she was described as a “loser”.

James Watson, who alongside Sir Francis Crick, is credited with the discovery of DNA, reportedly made the comments during a talk at a French university last week.

While the two male scientists received Nobel prizes and Crick had the celebrated new research laboratory in King’s Cross named after him, the contribution of Franklin to the breakthrough has been reassessed only in recent years with a new understanding that her role was downplayed.

Her niece, Shirley Franklin, who helped form Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition to protect services against cuts, this week accused Mr Watson of being “patronising” in his comments, first reported in French newspaper Le Monde.

“Tragically, she lost her life at 37 but in her short scientific career she made some important scientific findings, not just in the structure of the DNA molecule but also in the atomic structure of coal and the tobacco mosaic virus,” said Ms Franklin.

The apparent widespread failure to credit Rosalind Franklin, who lived in Hampstead, has been blamed on sexism. Her contribution was finally recognised more widely when another new laboratory, the £100million Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxfordshire, was officially launched on Monday. It is hoped new research into treating cancer and developing new drugs will be carried out at the centre.

Shirley Franklin, res­ponding to coverage of Mr Watson’s comments in The Times newspaper, added: “In his book, The Double Helix, James Watson patronising call­ed my aunt ‘Rosy’ and wrote:

‘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.’ Now, he foolishly des­cribes her as a loser.”

Mr Watson’s description of Franklin did not stop there. In The Double Helix, he also wrote: “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 blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.”

Mr Watson, 90, has regularly courted public controversies in his later years, including linking intelligence with race.

In the same talk last week, he suggested Crick may have been “a bit autistic”.

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