The Rape of the discoveries

What do Wilkins, Watson, Crick and Dean have in common?

Readers can easily link the names of Wilkins, Watson and Crick to the famous discovery of the DNA double helix. Somebody will link their names to that of Rosalind Franklin, the usurped researcher of her discoveries, the true discoverer of the DNA double helix structure.

Wilkins showed Watson and Crick the DNA X-ray diffraction images without Franklin’s permission. Her data led the two scientists to formulate the DNA structure hypothesis and published it before Franklin. 

For this discovery, the three scientists won the Nobel Prize in 1962 and although Rosalind Franklin was dead at the time, none of the three recognized her work. As if that were not enough, Watson in one of his biography, “The Double Helix”, depicted Franklin as “the terrible and bitchy Rosy”, an unattractive woman with a bad character.

Obviously a misogynist picture.

Rosalind Franklin is a posthumous heroine, is the symbol of the inferiority position of women in science. This is the real rebellion that new female scientists must make: work well like Franklin, but don't allow anyone to steal their work and deserve proper recognition.

What about Dean?

Arthur L. Dean, chemist and president of the University of Hawaii, is another “thief” of others’ discoveries. We are talking about the work of Alice Ball.

Alice Ball was the first African American and first woman to obtain a M.S. degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii). Born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle to a middle class family. Her grandfather was a photographer who used daguerreotypes, a particular technique that allowed photos to be printed on metal. 

Ball was a model student, with excellent results. After earning undergraduate degrees from Pharmaceutical Chemistry (1912) and Pharmacy (1914) at the University of Washington, Alice Ball moved to the College of Hawaii and became the first African American and the first woman to take a M.S. degree in chemistry in 1915. She was offered a teaching and research position and became the first chemistry instructor. She was only 23 years old.

Her scientific research was aimed at developing a treatment for who suffered from Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Her research led her to create the first injectable treatment of leprosy using chaulmoogra tree oil, which until then was only a moderately successful topical agent that was used in Chinese and Indian medicine.

Ball has successfully isolated the oil in components of fatty acids of different molecular weights allowing it to manipulate the oil in a water-soluble injectable form. Ball’s scientific rigor has led to a highly successful method of relieving leprosy symptoms, which has been used on thousands of infected individuals for over thirty years until the introduction of sulfone drugs.

Tragically, Ball died on December 31, 1916, at the young age of 24. Probably after complications from inhaling chlorine gas in a laboratory accident. Her death certificate, however, reports tuberculosis as the cause of death. During her short life, she failed to see the full impact of her discovery. Additionally, the president of the College of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, continued the Ball’s study without giving her credit for the discovery. Dean also claimed the same authorship of the discovery, calling it the “Dean method”.

In 1922, six years after her death, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi hospital who originally encouraged Ball to study chaulmoogra oil, published a paper that gave Ball due credit. Despite this posthumous recognition, Alice Ball’s name was forgotten.

In 2000, the University of Hawaii- Mānoa placed a bronze plaque on a chaulmoogra tree on campus to honor Ball’s life and her important discovery. Former Hawaii Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii Mazie Hirono also declared “Alice Ball Day” on February 29. In 2007, the University of Hawaii awarded her with the Regents’ Medal of Distinction posthumously.

In 2017, Paul Wermager, a scholar of Ball’s life, established a scholarship in honor of Alice Augusta Ball, to support students of the College of Natural Sciences pursuing a degree in chemistry, biology or microbiology.

Wilkins, Watson, Crick and Dean have in common the practice of taking the study of women and making it their own, trampling on the merit, commitment and ingenuity of young women scientists.

5 thoughts on “The Rape of the discoveries”

  1. Thank you for your informative post. The success of women inventors and their discoveries have been placed on the ash heap of science and are now on the verge of being lost to history. Knowledge is power…

    1. Barbara Peterson

      their discoveries are not now “on the verge of being lost to history.” Since the 2000s their stories have been told, with more coming to light every day!

      It’s just like books published today that say, “Here’s the ‘untold story’ of the WASP.” (women pilots during WW2). Well, their story has been told since the 1980s…with several books published….so whose fault is it that most people haven’t heard of them?

      The uncurious person’s fault, frankly.

      Most people don’t read, except if they have to. Lots of stories of “hidden figures” have been told for decades, but if it’s not something that appears on a TV or Youtube, people don’t know about it.

      1. it is true. Many stories are told in many books and articles. But that’s not enough. It remains a niche job.
        it is a cultural problem. if we asked to list the names of male scientists in 10 seconds, everyone can do it. but if we ask to list the names of 10 female scientists then maybe, on average, we will hear 4 or 5. there is not enough redundancy. it is a job that must be done in schools. in Italy the journalists asked Samantha Cristoretti who would take care of her family in her absence. The same question was not asked of his fellow male astronauts. The problem is breaking down the wall of oblivion too. Many of our pioneers were great scientists in their time, but how many are remembered? Why in schools when they talk about DNA they only talk about Watson and Crick? Why not also tell about Franklin? These are the gaps to be filled.

  2. Pingback: The Matilda Effect: Women Scientists Erased From the History Books – Watchdogs Gazette

  3. Shame on these men!
    Shame on these scientists to steal from others!
    Shame on society to not promote the truth and correct the false statements with the truth! Rewrite the textbooks!
    Shame on these men for walking over these brilliant woman!
    What wonderful contributions by these brilliant women to science. The world must celebrate- place Wilson, Watson, Crick and Dean in timeout – forever.
    Thank you to those of you to present the facts- to those of us too caught up in day to day bureaucracy.

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