Franklin’s honor isn’t in Watson’s medal

The gossip of the scientific water cooler (aka Twitter) the past week: James Watson is selling his Nobel Medal.

Watson, with his colleague Francis Crick, received the Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for their work on the structure of DNA. They shared the prize with Maurice Wilkins, whose work confirmed the pair’s proposal.

Today, at least in the scientific community, we also recognize the invaluable contribution of Rosalind Franklin to this work. I cannot do the story justice in a quick post. The short version: Franklin was a crystallographer. She essentially captured the “pictures” of DNA that would provide the evidence for its structure. Wilkins shared the data with Watson without Franklin’s knowledge. Watson and Crick went on to publish their seminal paper – with a brief nod to Wilkins and Franklin – that would, in part, lead to their selection for the receiving the Nobel Prize.

By the time the Prize was awarded, Franklin had died – four years earlier, due to ovarian cancer.

Watson is now looking to sell his Nobel medal to garner a bit of spending money. Apparently funds are running a bit low now that he is, in his own words, an “unperson” following racist comments in 2007 – but one of his controversial statements in the past couple of decades.

Adam Rutherford and Laura Helmuth have written excellent pieces about why one might save their tears – and so I won’t retread this ground.

I want to tackle a different point.

A number of folks on Twitter suggested a crowd funding campaign to buy Watson’s Nobel and give it to Franklin’s family or use it to some way honor her.

When I first saw the idea last week, I thought it lovely.

Then time passed. It surfaced again. And a different reaction bubbled up.

The auction house thinks that the medal could bring between $2.5 million and $3.5 million.

Three. Million. Dollars.

It would  be incredible if the crowds could scrap together that kind of money. It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibilities. After all, Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, managed to bring in $1.3 million to create the Tesla Museum.


Does buying a hunk of metal – 200 g of 23 carat gold – accomplish that?

More than that, does filling Watson’s piggy bank accomplish that?

I don’t buy it.

There are other ways to honor a woman scientist who encountered great barriers and great dismissals in life and death.

Giving her contributions due credit today. Creating an inclusive environment in sciences – not just for girls and women but for people of color, LGBTQ, persons with disabilities… Supporting diversity in science.

Outreach programs for kids who continue to encounter barriers today. Stipends for research experiences for high school and college students who might otherwise miss out. Travel awards for a conference. A named fellowship for early career scientists. An endowed chair for a rising star (who perhaps also happens to be a woman).

Just imagine what a million dollars could do…

Of course, we each get to decide what to do with our disposable income. And I suspect that the suggestions are more statements of principle than intention (which is fine too). But if you’re serious about a crowd funding campaign, don’t ask me to help pay for Jim Watson’s twilight years. There are finer ways to honor a historic woman in science.

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3 Responses to Franklin’s honor isn’t in Watson’s medal

  1. Pingback: Links 12/4/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  2. Janice Flahiff says:

    Thanks for posting. Please keep us updated!
    (I remember when I first read about Rosalind Franklin back in the 70s, on my own, when I was in high schoo. I was stunned. Sure burst my bubble seeing the disconnect between the ideals of the scientific method and what unfortunately goes on at times in the scientific communities.)

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