Unrecognized Genius

By | Dec 05, 2014

Stories by Dina Gold

Moment remembers DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin, economist Anna Schwartz & comedy writer Lucille Kallen—three of the many women who did not receive the accolades they deserved in their lifetimes.

Rosalind Franklin



“We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” So began James Watson and Francis Crick’s seminal paper, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids,” published in Nature on April 25, 1953. Their article ended: “We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College, London.”

This was all the credit Rosalind Elsie Franklin—a biophysicist, physical chemist and molecular biologist—received in the paper that revealed to the world the double helix structure of DNA. That finding is often called the most important biological discovery of the 20th century—and only now is Franklin widely recognized as a critical part of the discovery.

Franklin was born into a well-to-do, highly educated, politically liberal London Jewish family. She was educated at the prestigious St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she developed a keen interest in physics and chemistry. From there she won a place at Newnham College, Cambridge, and went on to earn a doctorate in 1945. She then headed to Paris to work at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’État, where she used x-ray crystallography to examine the chemical structures of carbon atoms and published five groundbreaking papers.

Franklin returned to Britain in 1951 to take a fellowship in the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College, London. Relations with Maurice Wilkins, a shy and indirect man who was the deputy director of the biophysics unit, were strained from the start. Franklin’s younger brother Colin says that the problems his sister encountered at King’s College were “largely through muddled terms of reference when she accepted a Fellowship there.” The head of the council had failed to inform Wilkins that he had told Franklin that DNA studies would be allocated to her; he also neglected to tell Franklin that Wilkins had an interest in the subject. Wilkins saw Franklin as a member of his team who should report to him and focus on projects he assigned her. Franklin did not consider herself his underling, took badly to being patronized and made her opinions known forcefully. The pervading culture of condescension toward women, who were not even permitted to enter the all-male senior common room, exacerbated the situation.

Biographer Brenda Maddox, author of Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, was given access to Franklin’s personal correspondence. In an article for Nature she wrote that Franklin was unhappy at King’s College “not so much because of her gender, but because of her class and religion: a wealthy Anglo-Jew felt out of place in a Church of England setting dominated by swirling cassocks and students studying for the priesthood.” In a letter to a friend, Franklin wrote: “At King’s there are neither Jews nor foreigners.”

While at King’s, Franklin examined single DNA fibers at extremely high humidity and discovered there were two forms of DNA, the known “dry” crystalline form which she labeled “A” and another longer, thinner or “wet” type, which she called “B.” In May 1952, Raymond Gosling, a Ph.D. student working under her supervision, took what has become known as Photo 51—an image of the B form of the molecule, revealing a cross-shaped pattern of spots indicating the double helix strands we now know to be the structure of DNA.

James Watson and Francis Crick, working in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, had built a model of DNA based on what was known about it at the time; their model showed a three-helix molecule with the phosphates on the inside. Franklin and her fellow King’s College team were invited to inspect it, whereupon she accurately declared that it could not remain intact. Her analysis prompted the director of the Cavendish Laboratory to tell Watson and Crick to stop working on DNA and to leave it to the King’s College team. But they never gave up hope of a major breakthrough and remained in touch with Wilkins at King’s College.

This led to two instances of betrayal by Franklin’s colleagues in 1953. In January, Wilkins—without Franklin’s knowledge—showed Photo 51 to Watson, who later admitted, “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.” The second disloyalty came one month later when Max Perutz, a member of a council charged with reviewing the work of the King’s College team, broke the norms of confidentiality and showed Crick a draft report which summarized the work spearheaded by Franklin.

These vital leaks enabled Watson and Crick to build the chemical model of the DNA molecule and to calculate the size and structure of the helix. The famous paper they published describing these findings was the lead article in Nature, while Franklin’s paper on the double-helix appeared as the third: The order suggested that Franklin was simply backing up the other scientists’ findings, rather than originating the discovery.

That same year, 1953, Franklin left King’s College for Birkbeck College at London University, where she led a successful investigation that used x-ray crystallography to examine the structure of RNA, which makes up the genome of many viruses. But five years later, Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. As a result, when the Nobel committee awarded the Prize in Physiology or Medicine to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for solving the structure of DNA in 1962, one name was missing again: Rosalind Franklin. Although few today would contest the claim that she deserved, at the very least, a mention for her role in the discovery of DNA’s structure, the Nobel is not awarded posthumously.

Her closest colleague at London University, Aaron Klug, also went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1982. In his acceptance speech he recognized Franklin. But Watson and Crick, who died in 2004, never fully credited Franklin for her role in their work. The nearest they came was in a 1954 paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society in which they expressed their gratitude to the King’s College group without whose data “the formulation of our structure would have been most unlikely, if not impossible.”

Ironically, Franklin would likely have remained in relative obscurity if not for Watson’s 1968 memoir, The Double Helix. In the early chapters he viciously denigrated his former colleague, referring to her as “Rosy”—a nickname she never used and in fact disliked. Watson wrote: “By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities… There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one 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…Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA … The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.”

Colin Franklin says Watson’s comments were a surprise to Franklin’s family and friends because Watson and Rosalind seemed to have an amicable relationship. “They continued in good friendship, with some banter on both sides, while she lived,” he says. Franklin’s younger sister Jenifer Glynn has speculated that this was due to her ignorance about the breaches in confidence. “She never knew how much they relied on her work. If she had, there would have been an almighty explosion.”

Watson has not tempered his criticisms over time: In 2010 he said, “She provided… some crucial pieces of information. Her great handicap, which I would now say we would use the term Asperger’s, she didn’t know how to deal with other people; didn’t know how to ask for help.” Apparently unconcious of the irony, he went on: “And, if anything, probably paranoid about people stealing her data.”

In the decades since her death, Franklin’s name has become better known. Today, institutions around the world—including her former high school and Cambridge University—have buildings named in Franklin’s honor. There are scholarships in her name and a Rosalind Franklin Society and a Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award. And books, plays, films, radio and television programs have chronicled her life. Although controversy lingers about how much credit she should be given for the discovery of DNA’s structure, many have come to admire her. “Posthumously,” her sister has said, “Rosalind’s reputation has been used, in a way that would have amazed her and still baffles members of her family, in the very useful job of encouraging girls to study science.”

Anna Schwartz 



The late University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman—who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976—is renowned as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. But few have heard of the woman who many believe should have won the prize along with him: his frequent co-author, Anna Schwartz. In their seminal tome, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, the two disagreed with the generally accepted hypothesis of the time, namely that the Great Depression was the result of the 1929 stock market crash. Instead, Schwartz and Friedman argued that the central bank’s reduction in the U.S. money supply from 1928 into the early 1930s was to blame. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has called their theory “the leading and most persuasive explanation of the worst economic disaster in American history.”

Anna Schwartz (née Jacobson) was the third of five children born to Eastern European immigrants in New York. An outstanding student, she graduated from Barnard College in 1934, at age 18, and completed a master’s degree a year later. In 1941 she joined the National Bureau of Economic Research, a research organization, and in 1964, she was awarded a PhD in economics from Columbia University. Throughout, her approach involved a thorough examination of past economic cycles, which she believed was the path to understanding the present.

Schwartz and Friedman first began working together in the 1940s at the prompting of Arthur F. Burns, a founder of the National Bureau and its chief economics researcher, and later Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Schwartz and Friedman—she in New York and he in Chicago—formed a close working relationship. “I’ll write something and send it to him, and he’ll criticize it, and he’ll do the reverse,” she told a New York Times reporter in 1970. “The wonderful thing about this relationship is that neither of us takes offense if the other says it’s no good.” Friedman himself once joked that their relationship was “an almost perfect collaboration. Anna did all the work and I got a lot of the credit.”

While Friedman may have meant to be wry, his comment was a poignant reflection on the 70-year career of a woman who produced a prodigious amount of work. Schwartz held high-level positions at the National Bureau and was a distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the recipient of nine honorary degrees. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013 and was hailed by former colleague Michael Bordo, professor of economics at Rutgers University, as “one of the greatest economists of the twentieth century.” Upon her death in 2012, The New York Times reported that she “was often called the ‘high priestess of monetarism,’ upholding a school of thought that maintains that the size and turnover of the money supply largely determines the pace of inflation and economic activity.”

But Schwartz—who officially retired at the age of 65 yet continued to work into her 90s—never enjoyed the public accolades she deserved. Allan Meltzer, professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, has said, “The fact that Anna never received an appointment at any major university is the clearest example I know of discrimination against women in the past.”

Nor was she appointed to the Federal Reserve. Some speculate that Schwartz could have been had she agreed to move to Washington, DC, but “she never wanted to move from New York,” says her son, Joel Schwartz. “She was happy there, loved attending the opera and carrying on with her research.”

Anna Schwartz had four children with husband Isaac Schwartz, the financial officer for a Manhattan import company. Like many others then and since, she faced the conundrum of the work/life balance. “I remember as a five-year-old child my mother taking me as a treat to the movies in Manhattan where we lived, but the norm was for her to be at work,” says son Joel. “After 1961 my paternal grandmother lived with us, which made it easier for her to manage a full-time career together with having four children.”

“When I think about my grandmother’s example, I want to call it work/life joy,” is how Eloise Pasachoff, associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center, remembered her grandmother at her memorial service. “Notwithstanding the popular saying to the contrary, it is possible to get to your deathbed and wish you had spent more time in the office. Not because you don’t wish you’d had more time with your family, too; not because you don’t have a full and rich and interesting personal life; but because what you do all day long at work grips you with a passion you want to pursue. There are more problems to solve, more questions to answer, more cases to build, more theories to debunk.”

According to her family, Schwartz never felt slighted by the lack of attention. “She was never unhappy or resentful,” says her son Joel. “She loved her life, her work, she enjoyed the respect she received from her colleagues in the profession, and she did not care about public recognition.”

Lucille Kallen 


Mel Tolkin, Sid Caesar, Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks (circa 1950)

From 1950 to 1954, Your Show of Shows aired on NBC on Saturday nights, capturing the imagination of the American public. The live 90-minute variety program, which included comedic and musical sketches and starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, ushered in the Golden Age of Television and set the standard for TV comedy. Sixty years later, the names of the Jewish comedians whose careers were launched in its storied “writers room” remain legendary: Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Danny and Neil Simon. But only the most dedicated comedy geeks will know the name of Lucille Kallen, one of the show’s few female writers.

Born in Los Angeles in 1922, Kallen was raised by her Jewish grandparents. “Her point of reference, food, ways of looking at the world, were Jewish,” says Kallen’s daughter, Lise Engel. After a stint at Juilliard—cut short because her fingers were not long enough for her to be a classical pianist—Kallen turned to writing. Her work caught the attention of producer Max Liebman, who invited her to hone her skills at Camp Tamiment, the large Jewish summer resort for adults in the Pocono Mountains famous for its Saturday night comedy skits. This would prove to be a fortuitous development for two reasons: Liebman would go on to direct Your Show of Shows, and at Tamiment, Kallen would meet Tolkin; together they would become Your Show of Shows’ founding writers.

From the start, Kallen was the odd-woman-out in the grubby, smoke-filled midtown Manhattan office. Indeed, writing sessions were so boisterous that at times Kallen had to stand on the sofa and wave her red sweater to attract the attention of her colleagues. After her death, Sid Caesar reminisced that during all the creative bedlam, it had been Kallen who had calmly written down the lines. According to Carl Reiner, she “ruled the roost… she was the arbiter. If she didn’t like a line, she wouldn’t write it down.” Among other things, Kallen and her colleagues were known for their sharp parodies of movies (From Here to Obscurity), a running sketch about married life called “The Hickenloopers” and a lampoon of the then-rare phenomenon: the health food restaurant.

In the 1950s, few women were employed outside the home, let alone in the fledgling television industry. Kallen’s husband Herbert Engel, a businessman she married in 1952, encouraged her career. “My father, who was enraptured by her, had a very modern and wholly supportive attitude toward working women,” says the couple’s son Paul Engel.

When Your Show of Shows ended, Kallen went on to write for The Imogene Coca Show, Stanley (with Woody Allen and Neil Simon as co-writers), and The Bell Telephone Hour, among other TV programs. In 1957 she co-wrote the Broadway play Maybe Tuesday with Mel Tolkin. She then turned her attention to writing fiction, and in 1964 she published Outside There, Somewhere, which was described by The New York Times as “a comic, early feminist exploration of the competing demands of career and motherhood.” “A woman can do anything she wants as long as she doesn’t do anything she wants!” Kallen wrote in the novel. “She can go anywhere she likes as long as she stays put!”

Perhaps that explains why Kallen didn’t join the television industry’s migration to Los Angeles. Lise Engel says it was her mother’s decision not to move. “If she had felt really strongly about it, we would have moved west but my sense was that she had got in at the ground level, when it was homey, and she worked with friends in a small environment, she felt in control, and the idea of a whole new, much more competitive arena, with more players, was off-putting and scary.”

While the careers of other Your Show of Shows writers skyrocketed, Kallen slipped into obscurity. “My mother rarely gets mentioned alongside the other stars of Your Show of Shows, although she was the glue that bound them all together,” says Paul Engel. Tolkin, recognizing the injustice, remarked that Kallen indeed was occasionally lost in the fray. “She was generally given the least credit because other people are so loud and so famous.” Says her son: “My sense is that she felt some bitterness that the egotistical men she had worked with became household names and she did not.”

In later years, Kallen—on whom Neil Simon based the principal female (and pregnant) character in his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor—candidly acknowledged that she had been the object of condescension of her fellow writers. “At the time, I felt it was one big happy family, but later I said ‘What an idiot!’ There was a male phalanx and then there was me. But when we were working, there was no difference.”

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