To separate a pound of the black seed from the lint is a day’s task for a person, but, in the late eighteenth-century America, such painstaking labor was normally entrusted to slaves. In 1870, Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote the essay “Woman as Inventor,” having told the origin of the first cotton gin, a device by orders of magnitude more efficient in processing raw materials for cheap and practical textile. Matilda Gage wrote about an American woman Catharine Littlefield Greene, who conceived the idea of a machine capable of separating the cotton, and instructed its construction to the hands of Eli Whitney, who possessed the usual facility in the use of tools. The wooden teeth at first tried not doing their work well, Mr. Whitney wished to abandon the machine altogether; but Mrs. Greene, whose faith in ultimate success was never wavered, would not consent; she suggested the substitution of wire. Eventually, the prototype model was completed.

Today, the name of Catharine Littlefield Greene is met throughout articles about the cotton gin annotated in the margin: “some researchers claim…” The searches show that Eli Whitney was the inventor of the machine, as the patent was taken out in his name in 1793. Also popular is the story of how landowners ignored this patent, by assembling their devices modeled after that machine and refusing to pay amounts due to the patent holder – the name of the female inventor is hardly ever mentioned and the absence of her name in the document comes from the fact that patents were only taken out in the name of men in the late 1700s. To assert the truth in a controversial story is hardly possible today, 230 years after invention of the machine, as there is a documented invention of the machine by the man, on the one hand, and a claim of the female activist written three quarters of a century later, on the other hand.

Matilda Gage, who wrote the essay “Woman as Inventor,” was neither an inventor, nor a scientist – she campaigned for the woman suffrage, abolition of slavery and free thinking. In her article, she described the very essence of the gender inequality in science – something that was named after her the Matilda Effect in 1993 by science historian Margaret Rossiter, who studied the women’s contribution to science.

Dual Approach to Discovery of the Double Helix

Today, Rosalind Franklin and her relation to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA are mentioned with a different level of compromise, varying from “her work was not properly accounted for” to “fame taken” and “the stolen Nobel Prize.” This is a ten-year history of the 1950s-1960s: scientists already understood that certain organism features are pre-determined and inherited, but where is this information stored and how does the carrier look like? The answer was sought by partly rival researchers from different countries.

In 1962, American James Watson and British Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology. Behind the Nobel Prize “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material” was among other things the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA – the double helix. The researchers phrased, published and proved information deemed breakthrough for the biochemistry in many respects relying on the works by Rosalind Franklin. Her findings were showed to Francis Crick and James Watson without the knowledge and permission of the woman scientist. Including the famous “Photograph 51,” an X-ray photograph of the DNA structure taken by Franklin.

People said that inventions were owned not by Rosalind Franklin, but by King’s College, London, where she worked, hence they could be demonstrated to other scientists without asking the author. People said that information about Franklin’s research was not confidential. People said that Watson and Crick could not refer to Franklin’s unpublished works in their article about the DNA model specifically because these works were not published. On April 25, 1953, Nature magazine published an article by Watson and Crick proposing a model of the DNA double helix, which marked Rosalind Franklin’s contribution by the non-committing line in the end: “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.” The article authored by Franklin herself was published in the same Nature issue, but on the pages following the breakthrough article – it was evaluated as the proof of the theory by Watson and Crick, but not as part of the discovery.  Years later, the academic community began to recognize that Rosalind Franklin deserves the Nobel Prize, which she never received, as she had died four years before the ceremony.

On the other side of the controversial history about priority in the discovery are merits and academic honors of James Watson and Francis Crick. Quite often, on the sidelines of the story about research borrowed from Franklin is the fact that both Watson and Crick were eminent scientists, who could not use Franklin’s data without own research.

Sixty years have passed since the 1962 Nobel Prize was awarded and almost seventy years – since the publication of the article about the DNA structure. Many books have been written about Rosalind Franklin. Scientists, who received the Nobel Prize, were accused of stealing her research and skeptical attitude to women in science. These publications mentioned facts of discrimination as shameful as separate canteens at institutes, demands to stop studies and small numbers of women in research teams. In like manner, other publications refuted these facts. It has been over half a century and during this time the academia fully recognized Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the DNA structure, having created in these disputes one of the most vivid images of underestimated women scientists.

Equality Beginnings

Rosalind Franklin’s story is one of the examples that Margaret Rossiter uses in her 1993 research dedicated to the Matilda Effect. In her article, she also describes other cases of inequality, which impacted the scientific recognition.

Nettie Stevens published works on the difference of the arrangement of chromosomes in species of different sexes before anyone else, but unlike her competitor, Edmund Wilson, she did not receive any recognition in due time in textbooks and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

A pulsar pioneer Jocelyn Bell stayed behind the scenes of awarding, as the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to Sir Martin Ryle “for his observations and inventions, in particular of the aperture synthesis technique” and Antony Hewish, Jocelyn Bell’s research advisor, “for his decisive role in the discovery of pulsars.”

With the words “But perhaps the most notorious theft of Nobel credit,” Rossiter describes the story of Lise Meitner, who worked with Otto Hahn on the uranium fission. However, in 1944, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for a successful fission experiment, which later allowed researchers to create nuclear reactors and bombs. Lise Meitner was nominated for the Nobel Prize 48 times, but she never received any medal and documented recognition.

The Matilda Effect mentioned by Margaret Rossiter is the systematic underrecognition of women’s achievements in science and, among other things, taking women’s credit by men. As a result, there is a false conclusion that women fail in science. The Matilda Effect can be branded a gender-based derivative of the “Matthew Effect,” a process made famous by American sociologist Robert Merton in 1968. It is reduced to the unequal distribution of recognition, as the person with merits and achievements continues to accumulate and increase them, while those who have little to start with are further limited. The name of the effect comes from the second half of Matthew 13:12 in the Bible: “…For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” The Matilda Effect extrapolates this scheme to male-female relations in science.

The essay “Woman as Inventor” was released in 1870, when women just began to gain access to higher education en masse: University of Zurich, colleges in America, University of London, which was the first in England to allow women to study along with men. Prestigious universities in Oxford and Cambridge partly moved beyond gender doubts closer to the early twentieth century and allowed coeducation only after the World War II.

Examples used by Margaret Rossiter chiefly mention women scientists, who lived and worked in the first half or middle of the twentieth century. This was a century, when women, who were just allowed to take part in the scientific life, started to exercise this right, while the skeptical attitude that men scientists professed against women scientists was at its height.

Temporary Effect?

The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. It has been 120 years in 2021 since the establishment of the prize. Only eleven women received the Nobel Prize in the first 60 years, of whom Marie Skłodowska Curie received it twice.

In the second half of the Nobel Prize period, from 1963 to 2018, the list of winners included forty more women. Women’s growing contribution and recognition in the world science can be evaluated only subject to political, social and economic changes. This was further fueled by the second stage of the active fight for women’s rights, which started in the 1960s, the outcome of and demographics after the World War II, the living standards, which generally increased over the century and allowed women to take their mind off the daily chores.

In the article “Does gender matter?” published in Nature magazine in 2006, American neurobiologist Ben Barres tells that once after a seminar he heard someone saying that his work was much better than his sister’s. A person, who rated these works differently, did not know that he compared the studies of the same person, as Ben Barres was a transgender male, who prior to transition in 1997 was actually Barbara. The current studies show that the gender inequality in science partly lives to this day, echoing, depending on the countries, in a different level of income, fewer citations of women’s articles and fewer women in science in general.

Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA was recognized along with scientists, who had received the Nobel Prize in 1962. In an interview, James Watson reportedly answered the question, who would have received the Nobel Prize, if Franklin had lived long enough, as follows: “Crick, me and Rosalind Franklin.”

In the obituary, Thomas Morgan, under whose supervision Nettie Stevens studied the XY chromosomes, recognized her achievements in the context of the general research: “Miss Stevens had a share in a discovery of importance, and her name will be remembered for this, when the minutiae of detailed investigations that she carried out have become incorporated in the general body of the subject.”

Lise Meitner, who was left without the Nobel Prize, was eventually immortalized in the periodic table, as the chemical element 109, Meitnerium, was named after her. She also received the Enrico Fermi Award, Max Planck Medal and the 1946 “Woman of the Year” by the National Women’s Press Club.

It was a tedious and painstaking task to separate a pound of the black seed from the lint more than two centuries ago. But this problem was solved. Today, in a time of big research teams, representing women and men equally, and of discoveries composed of dozens of occasional studies, the accurate work is the one based on the objective recognition of achievements irrespective of the personal attitude and gender differences. 

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