By: Jeremy Balkin

Florence Bell and Rosalind Franklin made impactful contributions to our understanding of DNA, but do we know who they are? Learn more about the role they played in the study of DNA during International Women’s Month.

An AI generated image of an old photo of two female scientists working in a lab. Rosalind Franklin and Florence Bell were never able to work with each other, their research however did work together to help aid in our current understanding of DNA.

Abbott & Costello. Bonnie & Clyde. Florence & the Machine. I sometimes wonder who decides the order of naming duos and if they’re always fair. Does the #2 spot end up resenting #1 until it boils over into a public feud, until all that is left are shattered legacies and unwritten songs? Is it subtly psychologically taxing on #2 until they start identifying themselves as second place in every aspect of their lives? Or, are they just glad to be a part of the mission? However it plays out, the top billed of the pair usually gets more of the spotlight. Whether it’s natural talent or just the luck of the draw, there’s an inherent hierarchy to historical duos based on their name alone. One thing is for certain though: Bell & Franklin is not a famous pair.

You may now be thinking, ‘but Jeremy, Florence Bell and Rosalind Franklin didn’t work together and their landmark findings came years apart so they shouldn’t even be considered a pair.’ To which I would say, ‘right.’ But then I also wouldn’t have been able to write this as my intro. However, their discoveries and contributions helped build on one another’s and helped lead to genetics as we know it today.

For Women’s History Month, we absolutely could not exclude Bell and Franklin. Their stories, like many before (and after) them, are often very underrepresented and marginalized in the pantheon of the discovery of DNA.

Watson & Crick

James Watson and Francis Crick are largely credited with determining what we know today as the double helix in the 1950s. Their contributions to both science and my current employment cannot be understated. Considering that their two names are probably what come to mind when you think of the discovery of DNA, this speaks to the lasting legacy of both men. However, it is also true that many other people laid the groundwork for their discoveries years before them, dating back to the mid-19th century. The basics for what would become our understanding of DNA originated in the 1860s with Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher. It wasn’t until the 20th century, though, that more discoveries were made (finding the components that make up a nucleotide, figuring out how RNA and DNA are placed together, the reasons and ways molecules bond, the order of nucleotides, etc.).This all helped pave the way for the discovery of the double-helical model as the structure for DNA. This breakthrough would not have been possible without two scientists and their work with X-rays.

Florence Bell’s Contribution

Florence Bell was born on May 1, 1913, in London. She did not come from a scientific family. Her father was a photographer and later worked in marketing as an advertising manager. She later attended Girton College at the University of Cambridge to study natural sciences.

Florence Bell’s work revealed in X-ray images the arrangement of molecules and atoms in simple crystals. Shortly after, her work with William Astbury led to X-ray studies of many other biological materials. Through her work, they were able to record microscopic images of the basics of a DNA structure. A direct line can be drawn from this discovery to Watson & Crick’s work on genetics and the double helix.

Florence Ogilvy Bell (1 May 1913 – 23 November 2000), later Florence Sawyer, was a British scientist who contributed to the discovery of DNA.

Her work with DNA was abruptly halted when she was drafted for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941. Astbury kept a position for her open, but Bell never returned. She later married an American serviceman and emigrated to the US. She worked as an industrial chemist and eventually gave up her career to look after her four children. When she died in 2000, her occupation was recorded as “housewife.”

Rosalind Franklin’s Contribution

Another direct (and shorter) line can be drawn between Bell and another scientist who used X-rays to illustrate DNA’s structure: Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, in London. She also attended University of Cambridge and studied natural sciences. Like Bell, her upbringing wasn’t in the lab. Her father was a merchant banker and a professor at the Working Men’s College in London.

Franklin is admittedly better known than Bell. Nicole Kidman even portrayed her in a play. I am not suggesting that Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of you is the ultimate status of scientific notoriety. However, I am suggesting that if Nicole Kidman portrayed me as an influential female scientist of the 1930s, I would be both incredibly flattered and wildly confused.

Franklin’s work is directly connected to Watson and Crick. She worked at King’s College with a scientist, Maurice Wilkins. They then had a falling out, with Wilkins looking for other collaborators. That’s where Wilkins found Francis Crick and James Watson, who were actually shown some of Franklin’s own data. Similar to Bell, her contribution wasn’t well known. After her death, Crick acknowledged that her contribution was essential.

Photograph of Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958)

Rosalind Franklin died on April 16, 1958, in Chelsea. She was surrounded by friends including Francis Crick and his wife, Odie. She did not have any children, and her death certificate stated “Scientist, Spinster, Daughter.”

The Unknown Roles of Women in Science

After doing my due diligence and research on these women, I am now much more skeptical when learning about any discoverers or inventors. Did Thomas Edison alone invent the light bulb? I have no idea, as this isn’t my assignment at the moment. But I’m much more inclined to say “no” now. Did Einstein propose the theory of splitting the atom on his own? Probably not. Again, I have done zero research. Who invented the vending machine? No idea.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields have traditionally been male-dominateds. Today the amount of women in the STEM fields are growing steadily.

As we in the field of genetics continue to push the envelope in terms of what we discover, both about the nature of DNA itself and its application to genealogy, ancestry, etc., we must also understand that the scientific method is a process. Everything builds on everything that came before. DNA testing itself, especially in our field, would look very different, if not nonexistent, without the major contributions from female scientists, who often go uncredited.

As our own scientists and academics continue researching here at FamilyTreeDNA and more people continue to test, there really is no telling what the future can hold in terms of personal genealogical discoveries.