Tomb of woman who helped discover DNA given listed status as role of female scientists put in the spotlight

The grave of a British researcher who played a crucial – but overlooked – role in the discovery of DNA has been given listed status as part of a new campaign to increase awareness of the contribution of women to science.

Rosalind Franklin is credited with laying the foundations for the science of molecular biology during a brilliant career cut short by ovarian cancer.

She died at the age of 37, meaning she could not be put forward for the Nobel Prize eventually won by the Cambridge-based team of Francis Crick and James Watson for modelling DNA despite her pioneering work in helping to discover the molecule’s structure.

Women ‘too often unrecognised’

Now her grave in a Jewish cemetery in London is to be given listed protection to coincide with International Women’s Dayamid a warning from heritage watchdogs that the role of women in British science too often goes unrecognised, especially when compared to the monuments erected in the name of some their illustrious male counterparts.

Debbie Mays, head of listing at Historic England, said: “While many great men of science have memorials, statues, libraries and scholarships to remember them by, in most cases we only have the buildings that silently witnessed these women’s achievements to connect us to them.

“Our aim is to not only bring these incredible achievements to light to a wider audience, but demonstrate to girls today that while women have been achieving in science and engineering for centuries, their stories were simply less widely told.”

Crested newt

The heritage body has joined forces with the Royal Society, the academy of British science, to expand knowledge of groundbreaking female scientists. Among the 28 names put forward are Eleanor Ormerod, a Victorian insect expert renowned for using her own body to test toxins to the point that she once held a live crested newt in her mouth to experience its poison; and Caroline Herschel, an astronomer who worked from her home in Bath and has six comets named after her.

The tomb of Franklin in Willesden Jewish Cemetery was granted Grade II listed status on the basis of her status as a scientist of “exceptional distinction”.

Tomb of woman who helped discover DNA given listed status as role of female scientists put in the spotlight

Structure of cells

The daughter of a banker from London’s Notting Hill, she graduated from Cambridge University and became an expertin the use of X-rays to discover the structure of cells and viruses.

Using these techniques while working at King’s College, London, in the early 1950s, she discovered that there were two forms of the DNA molecule and set out the conditions for genetic duplication between them.

It is now recognised that Franklin’s work, which was published in the same edition of the journal Nature that laid out the famous helical structure of DNA uncovered by Watson and Crick, was vital to proving the findings of the two men.

‘Exceptional distinction’

The document granting the tomb listed protection notes: “Many feel that her critical contribution to the Watson-Crick structure was not adequately recognised… Franklin is remembered as a scientist of exceptional distinction, whose early death was a great loss to science but who nonetheless helped lay the foundations of molecular biology.”

Ironically, one of the places where Franklin’s DNA work is not mentioned is on her gravestone. At the time of her death in 1956, the significance of the discovery of DNA was not generally well known.

From the Victorian botanist who spent a year in a hut in the Brazilian rainforest recording specimens to the brains behind rationing in the Second World War, here are some of the women whose contribution to British science is being highlighted by the Royal Society:

:: Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), the first computer programmer

:: Mary Anning (1799-1847), fossil collector and paleontologist who became world-renowned for her discoveries on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.

:: Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), best known for her illustrated children’s stories, Potter was also fascinated by natural science and put forward theories on fungi reproduction.

:: Eleanor Ormerod (1828-1901), the subject of a story by Virginia Woolf, she was an insect expert who lectured at the Royal Agricultural College, famously testing toxins exuded by creatures on herself.

:: Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), an engineer and physicist, she invented the sphygmomanometer – a device for measuring blood pressure – while at Girton College, Cambridge. She also founded the college’s fire brigade.

:: Constance Tipper (1894-1995), one of the first women to take the science Tripos at Cambridge University, she invented the Tipper Test – a now standard method for determining brittleness in ships.

:: Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000), as a dietician she jointly oversaw the government-approved addition of vitamins to food during rationing in the Second World War.

:: Marianne North (1830-1890) – the Hastings-born illustrator travelled the world recording plants and flowers, at one point spending a year in the Brazilian rainforest collecting specimens.

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