Monday, March 1, 2021

William Henry Perkin and the Discovery of Mauve


William Henry Perkin Discovers Mauve, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2021

The next prompt for #printersolstice is "a well-made mistake" which prompted this tale of failure and serendipity.

This handprinted lino block print ‘William Henry Perkin Discovers Mauve’ is about how the British chemist and entrepreneur made the serendipitous discovery of the first synthetic organic dye: mauveine. William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) was only 18 and was washing up after trying and failing to synthesize quinine to treat malaria when he produce a bright mauve chemical from aniline and he recognized its potential as a dye. He set up a factory, revolutionizing fashion and launching the synthetic organic chemicals industry. The linocuts are 8” by 10” on ivory Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper.

Perkin entered the Royal College of Chemistry in London in 1853 when he was only 15, studying with August Wilhelm von Hofmann. Hofmann hired him as his assistant in 1855 and had Perkin working on a series of experiments to try and synthesize quinine, used to treat malaria. During his Easter break in 1856, Perkin was performing some experiments to this end, in his makeshift lab in his own apartment. Hofmann thought allyl toluidine from coal tar could be oxidised with potassium bichromate to make quinine (which we now know cannot work). Perkin tried this method and got an unpromising brown precipitate. So instead he tried the method with another coal tar product, aniline, which produced a black sludge.... but left purple stains on the lab bench when he cleaned up with alcohol. Perkin was interested in painting and photography and had already been thinking about dyestuffs with his friend Arthur Church and his brother Thomas. They did not tell Hofmann. Perkin used a purified extract of the black sludge to colour samples of silk and sent them to a Scottish textile manufacturer. The results were so promising he decided to quit college, file for a patent and set up dye factory in Greenford Green, Middlesex. They named the dye mauveine.

Hofmann opposed his plan and feared the 18 year old lacked the experience to launch this enterprise, but he managed the logistics of securing ingredients reactive vessels and suitable mordants for dying. Then he tackled marketing the product: 'Perkin's mauve'.

His timing was perfect. Purple was a challenging colour to produce with natural pigments, many of which tended to fade. Considered a sign of royalty for centuries, 'Tyrian purple' was made from glandular mucus of certain molluscs; it was expensive and complicated to produce. Aided by Napoleon III's wife, the Empress Eugénie's choice of mauve fashion, as well as Queen Victoria favouring purple dresses, Perkin's mauve, the first mass-produced synthetic dye, became all the rage. In England they joked about 'mauve measles' and 'mauve mania'. Several of Hofmann's other students discovered other colours of synthetic dyes and an industry was born. Perkin was able to sell his business and retire from manufacturing at 36!

He then focused on research in organic chemistry. He published 90 papers in the Transactions of the Chemical Society, develipped the 'Perkin synthesis’ for unsaturated organic acids, did the first synthesis of coumarin, one of the first synthetic raw materials of perfume, synthesized cinnamic acid from benzaldehyde and developped a means of commercial production from anthracene of the brilliant red dye alizarin. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1866, received its Royal Medal in 1879 and Davy Medal in 1889, and was president of the Chemical Society and the Society for Chemical Industry. He had two sons by his first marriage to Jemima Lisset in 1859 (William Henry Jr and Arthur George). He remarried Alexandrina Mollwo after her death. They had a son (Frederick Mollwo) and four daughters (Helen, Mary, Lucie and Annie). They were a family of serious  musicians, who played together as a nine-piece chamber orchestra. Perkin had considered forming a professional string quarted with his brother and two sisters. His son William Perkin Jr was an excellent pianist. His son Arthur played flute with the family orchestra and later, first bassoon in a Yorkshire amateur orchestra. All three sons became chemists. William Henry Perkin was knighted in 1906, and received the first ever Perkin Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry, created on the 50th anniversary of discovery of mauveine, the year before his death. 



William Henry Perkin, wikipedia, accessed February 2021

Mike Sutton, The Perkin family legacy, Chemistry World, 26 February, 2010.

The mystery of the Victorian purple dye, Research Outreach, 2020.

Sir William Henry Perkin 1838 - 1907, Science Museum Group, accessed February 2021

William Henry Perkin: how an 18-year-old accidentally discovered the first synthetic dye,, March 18, 2018.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Freedom of the Press, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Creative Blocks and Animal Prints

 I have been working away, when I could, while we've been trying to do remote school for the first couple months of the year. I actually managed to keep up with the Printer Solstice prompt and made a new print a week. Now that schools have reopened here, I have a chance to share some of my latest prints. 

Freedom of the Press, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2021

I wasn't quite sure where to go with the theme "freedom of the press". I went with a winged Gutenberg press, thinking of the initial freedom it represented after its invention. (By the way, it's often presented as the first press, moveable type and paper were invented in China). I made a several different prints with this block, rather than a single edition.

The next theme was Blood, Sweat and Tears:

Blood, Sweat and Tears, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 2021

This "Blood, Sweat and Tears" lino block print is about how we as people reflect our origines in the ocean. Printed from 8 hand-carved blocks it shows blood cells racing through an artery, a cross-section of our skin with a sweat gland, an eye with a tear and a section of ocean seawater.

There's a well-known quotation from Isak Dinesen (the pen-name of Karen Blixen);

“‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘I know of a cure for everything: salt water.’

‘Salt water?’ I asked him.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.’"

This oft-given advice that hardwork, releasing your emotions or visiting the sea is the answer to any problem plays on the fact that sweat and tears are just salty water. But, in fact, we ourselves are predominently water, and we preserve the salinity of the environment of our earliest ancestors, from even before the first lobe-finned fish decided to seek refuge on land, in the Devonian (about 360 million years ago).

Next up was Creative Blocks. I opted for carving a collection of kid's wooden building blocks and then printing them on assorted beautiful patterned papers (both Japanese washi and European papers), so that some of them were "creative". I have made a whole series of these prints, each unique.

Creative Blocks, series of linocuts by Ele Willoughby, 20201

The next prompt was Animal Prints. So much of what I do is animal prints I wasn't sure what to do. It occurred to me that choosing insects might be a less common choice. Then I discovered that a group of moths is called an eclipse and I knew I had to add to my terms of venery series for groups of animals.

An Eclipse of Moths, linocut by Ele Willoughby 2021

This hand-printed lino block print shows five of the noctural moths of Ontario in front of the moon at a lunar eclipse. The five moths are: the gorgeous green Luna moth (Actias luna), the yellow and purplish-pink Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), the Five-spotted Hawk Moth in brown with orange spots (Manduca quinquemaculata), the red-orange, black and cream Virgin Tiger Moth (Apantesis virgo), and the black and white White Underwing (Catocala relicta).

I designed the typefaces to suggest the meaning of the words. "Eclipse" is full of crescent moon shapes. "Moths" is written in moth shapes.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Hertha Ayrton, Mathematician, Physicst, Engineer and Inventor


Hertha Ayrton, linocut by Ele Willoughby
Hertha Ayrton, linocut, 9.25" x 12.5" by Ele Willoughby, 2021.

This is my linocut portrait of British engineer, mathematician, physicist & inventor Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923). She is remembered for her research on the electric arc lamp, on ripple marks in sand & water, and her inventions including of mathematical line dividers which allowed artists, architects & engineers to enlarge or diminish drawings. I’ve shown her with a diagram of the dividers from her 1st of 26 patents, one of her diagrams about the origin & growth of ripple marks & one of her diagrams of an electric arc lamp (a subject on which she literally wrote the textbook).⁠

Born Phoebe Sarah Marks in Portsea, Hampshire, she was the third of eight children of a Polish Jewish immigrant watchmaker father & seamstress mother. After her father’s death when she was 7 in 1851, the family was left penniless and her mother returned to work as a seamstress. Sarah, as she was then known, had to care for her younger siblings. When she was 9, her maternal aunt Marion Hartog, who ran a school in north-west London with her husband Alphonse Hartog, invited her to join their household and attend their school. Though a hardship to her family, her mother recognized her potential and supported the move to London and the opportunities for her daughter. Her cousins introduced her to math and science. In her family, she was known as a fiery and occassionally crude character. By 16, she was living independantly, employed as a governess.

Her friend Ottilie Blind nicknamed her Hertha after the poem by Algernon Swinburne. They coached each other to prepare for the Cambridge entrance exam. Blind introduced Hertha to her mentor feminist, suffragette and founder of Girton College (the first residential college for women in England), Barbara Bodichon, after who she would later name her daughter. Her extended family and the suffrage community helped her get a higher education; author George Eliot* (a friend whom she met through Bodichon) wrote in support her application to Girton College, at Cambridge. She did not win a scholarship and would not have been able to afford tuition but she was supported with loans and donations from the suffrage community. While there studying math, she founded the fire brigade, led the choral society, and with fellow student and mathematician Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematics club. She also developed her first patented invention, the line divider and developed and built a sphygmomanometer (for measuring a person's pulse) while still an undergraduate. She passed the famous Mathematical Tripos in 1880, but Cambridge wouldn’t grant women degrees. She was able to take and pass a University of London equivalency exam, and they granted her a BSc in 1881.⁠

She earned an income teaching embroidery and math. She ran a club for working girls and looked after her invalid sister. By 1884 she had her first patent for a line divider; she also sought a US patent for it in 1885. Lady Goldsmid and Barbara Bodichon provided the funding she needed to seek these patents. The invention was well-received and got good reviews in the scientific press. She presented a paper on her invention to the Physical Society in 1885 and the device was manufactured in six sizes by a scientific instrument maker. Supporters encouraged her to become an entreprenneur and inventor but she wanted to pursue a scientific career.

She began evening classes on electricity with Professor Will Ayrton, trailblazer in engineering education at Finsbury Technical College. She was one of 3 women among 121 students. He was a widower with a young daughter, and a supporter of women's education and fight for voting rights. They married in 1885 and began collaborating on physics experiments and she was able to work from the lab in their home. A year later, they had a daughter, Barbara Bidochon Ayrton. From 1888 she taught practical and domestic electricity to women. Between this, domestic chores and raising her young daughter she had little time for research.

When her mentor Bodichon died in 1891, she left Ayrton enough money to support her mother and hire a housekeeper. Will supported her research but was also careful to not always collaborate with her, so that her work would be recognized as independant from his. He once told a friend “you and I are able people, but Hertha is a genius.” She began her own studies of the electric arc, solving the pressing problem of why they would flicker and hiss. She showed this was a result of oxygen coming into contact with carbon rods used to create the arcs. She patented a number of improvements to arc lights and published 12 articles on her advances. She was the first woman to deliver a paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), which was more progressive than other institutions and always allowed women to attend meetings. She was also able to present three papers to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS, now the British Science Association) in 1895, 1896 and 1898. She was elected a member of the IEE, recognized a professional qualification, in 1899; she was the sole female full member of the institution until 1958. Her cousin Marcus Hartog used her 1900 lecture at the International Electrical Congress in Paris to argue that the British Association for the Advancement of Science shouls allow women on their committees. Denied the right to present her paper to the Royal Society due to her sex, renown engineer John Perry (and Will's former colleague) presented it on her behalf in 1901. After she published her textbook The Electric Arc, Perry proposed her as Fellow of the Royal Society but they rejected this (as she was married, and hence had no independant legal standing). But in 1904, she became the first woman to present her own paper ‘The Motion of Ripples in Sand and Wave’ to the Royal Society. By 1906 she was the first woman to win the Hughes Medal, for her work on ripples and the electric arc.⁠

In Paris in 1903 she met Marie Curie and they became close friends, both physicists who collaborated with their physicist husbands and dedicated to social causes, and concerned about the role of women in society. They visited whenever Ayrton was in France. Ayrton vocally defended Marie, when Pierre died and the British press identified him (rather than Marie) as the discovered of radium, writing ‘Errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.’ Then in 1911, Marie won the Nobel for chemistry but endured a scandal in when her affair with married physicist Paul Langevin. Ayrton defended her again, and Marie and her daughters took refuge with the Ayrtons in England for two months. She was deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement, marched in many marches (and recruited her friend Marie Curie to the cause).⁠

After poisoned gas was used as a weapon during WWI, she put her expertise in fluid dynamics to work trying to develop a means of removing gas from the trenches. She also invented a fan and despite initial resistance from the War Office was able to demonstrate its effectiveness in protecting soldiers from poison gas and she herself organized production of her first manually operated fans in 1916. By 1917 she had developed a new, mechanically operated fan, more resistant to high winds, and she again fought War Office bureaucracy and organized the production of 104,000 sent to the Western Front.⁠ Her research on fans was later used to improve ventilation in mines and sewers. She continued to study vortices until she died. She left much of her estate to the IEE.

*Apparently, the character Mirah, in George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda, is based on Hertha. You might recall that George Eliot was also friends with another mathematician I've portrayed, Sofia Kovalevski. The sentence "In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke's mind felt blank before it, could hardly be less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid," from Eliot's Middlemarch, is undoubtedly due to her friendship with Kovalevski. I like to imagine George Eliot was quietly a math groupie. 


Elizabeth Bruton, The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor, Science Museum Group Journal, Autumn 2018, Issue 10 Article DOI:

Ayrton, Hertha. “The origin and growth of ripple-mark.Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Containing Papers of a Mathematical and Physical Character 84, no. 571 (1910): 285-310.

Kim Martini, The origin of ripples and other fantastic fluid experiments by Hertha Marks Ayrton, Deep Sea News, April 28, 2016.

Hertha Ayrton, Wikipedia, accessed February, 2021.

Joan Meiners, Meet Hertha Ayrton, the mathematician who cleared WW1 trenches of poisonous gas, Massive Sci, June 5, 2020.

Archives Biographies: Hertha Ayrton, The Institute of Engineering Technology, accessed February, 2021

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Tea Pots and Other Recent Prints


Green Tea Chemistry print
                                            Green Tea Chemistry linocut by Ele Willoughby

I thought I should add a tea chemistry linocut to go with the coffee linocut, which includes the caffeine molecule. Of course, tea chemistry is quite complex! I asked on Twitter, thinking I might have some tea loving scientist followers with good suggestions and I wasn't disappointed. Not only was I given some good feedback about which chemicals to feature, but also the suggestion of including the chromotography, as a means of telling the fuller chemical story.

There's a tea pot, two cups of tea and a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) on a tray, and in the steam, you can see some of the organic chemicals found in green tea. Up to 27% of the composition of green tea can be a member of the flavonoids called catechins like the molecule illustrated on the right. The stimulating effect of green tea is of course related to caffeine (the molecule in the middle) but, unlike say coffee, green tea also has an amino acid in tea called L-Theanine (the molecule on within the tea pot handle). L-Theanine has a direct effect on the brain, relaxing it without making you drowsy and can help with focus and mood; it's also largely responsible for taste. Since the chemistry of green tea is complex, and I can't show all the molecules involved, at the base of the tray is a chromatogram to illustate the L-Theanine (largest peak) and other amino acids in the green tea. 

With tea and teapots on the brain, I started thinking about a suggestion for another "imaginary friend" of science (my collection of charismatic thought experiments like Maxwell's Demon or Schroedinger's cat): Russell's Teapot. 

 Russell's Teapot
by Ele Willoughby

The alledged china teapot, in orbit between Earth and Mars is an analogy by philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to make the case that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making unfalsifiable claims, rather than shifting the burden of disproof to others. The print is made by hand on lovely 8" x 9" (20.3 cm x 22.9 cm) Japanese Obonai paper with a feathery sheen.

The Earth appears in blue in the corner. The China teapot itself has a blue flower pattern, and is shown magnified. Mars is in red with two tiny moons. At the bottom are the symbols for the solar system: Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and the extra teapot, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.


I also made a couple of Snowy Owl light boxes, which include my snowy owl linocut and colour changing LEDs to simulate the aurora.

While, we've been on a lockdown here in Toronto, and the schools are closed, so I'm spending a lot of time every day fascillitating online school for my 7 year old, I have also been trying to do all of the Printer Solstice prompts (one a week since the winter solstice).

Humpback linocut for prompt "under pressure".

A New Hope linocut schematically shows how mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, train the body to make spike protein, which our immune system then learns to combat.

Blep linocut, for "in good taste" is thinking creatively about taste and tongues. 

Europa Express linocut for the prompt "passport"

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Multimedia! Collage all the leftover bits of linocuts!

I've long wanted to put all my scaps and offcuts of my linocut prints on beautiful washi papers to use, so I've started making multimedia collage works. I want to move towards elliminating waste in my art practice and I'm enjoying being creative in a much more improvisational way. Find these works and more available online in my shop!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Peseshet, Actual Earliest Named Woman in Science or Medicine, Ancient Egyptian Overseer of the Female Physicians


Linocut of Peseshet
Peseshet, Overseer of Physicians, linocut, 11" x 14" by Ele Willoughby, 2020

Ada Lovelace, 3rd edition
Ada, Countess Lovelace, 3rd edition linocut by Ele Willoughby


It is once again Ada Lovelace Day, the 12th annual international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and math, Ada Lovelace Day 2019 (ALD19). I'm sure you'll all recall, Ada, brilliant proto-software engineer, daughter of absentee father, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Lord Byron, she was able to describe and conceptualize software for Charles Babbage's computing engine, before the concepts of software, hardware, or even Babbage's own machine existed! She foresaw that computers would be useful for more than mere number-crunching. For this she is rightly recognized as visionary - at least by those of us who know who she was. She figured out how to compute Bernouilli numbers with a Babbage analytical engine. Tragically, she died at only 36. Today, in Ada's name, people around the world are blogging.

You can find my previous Ada Lovelace Day posts here. 

One of the things that has become very clear, participating in a dozen years of Ada Lovelace events, is not only that there has long been a large collection of under-recognized women in the history of science and technology, who need to be written back into the story, but that there is a large appetite for these stories. Representation matters. Women in STEM and girls who love science and technology are seeking evidence of precedence (of foremothers in science). So much so, that scientists and amateur historians are themselves seeking out stories and evidence of women trailblazers. Thus, when Canadian feminist medical doctor Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead (1867 – 1941), likely made an innocent error, misinterpreting a report and conflating two people, she accidentally started the paper trail for an non-existent ancient woman in medicine: Merit Ptah, reputedly the earliest recorded woman in medicine and subject of one of my portraits. Hurd-Mead confused the Overseer of Healer Woman that did exist, Peseshet (5th Dynasty, 2465-2323 BCE), with a name, tomb location and date for someone a bit earlier, giving this conflation of people "Merit Ptah" priority. Thus "Merit Ptah" became a bit of a feminist hero, and for instance, The International Astronomical Union even named the impact crater Merit Ptah on Venus after her. While "Merit Ptah" was not what she appeared, the idea that women have played a role in science and medicine since ancient times is quite true. Specifically, there is hard evidence both that medicine in ancient Egypt was was quite advanced for the ancient world, and admired by people from contemporary civilizations and that women participated in this work. Physicians, even in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, while also often a sort of priest whose roll involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic, and quite different from our modern understanding of the role, did practise some things we would still recognize as science-based medicine. Specifically, we know Peseshet lived and worked as the Overseer of Women Physicians from a specifical inscription on her son's tomb.
Depiction of the Stela of the lady Peseshet from John F. Nunn, Acient Egyptian Medicine,
University of Oklahoma Press, 2002
The word for doctor is swnw (or swnwt for a woman; the suffix -t makes a word feminin, the way -e can make the feminine form of a French word) and is sometimes simplified as just the arrow symbol, indicating that doctors were initially the arrow-pullers, the people who treated those injured in battle. The name Peseshet is shown with the arrow hieroglyph in three separate places in the tomb of her son Akhet-hotep, a royal official and overseer of priests, who lived during the 5th Dynasty around 2400 BCE, and had an elaborate tomb build in the necropolis at Saqqara. Compassion for the suffering was an important moral consideration as they believed they would be judged on their morality through life when they reached the afterlife. Curing a patient would increase a doctor's standing but failing to do so was not viewed as a moral failing. They had no concept of the germ theory of disease, but luckily cleanliness was demanded of the priestly class and Egyptians in general bathed and purified their bodies often, and shaved their body hair as a means to fend off disease. Both surgery and prosthetics were part of ancient Egyptian medicine. There is a beautiful relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo showing surgical instruments, but this was made thousands of years after Peseshet's time. The oldest surgical tools discovered are from the 6th Dynasty. The mummification and ritual autopsy of human and animal corpses meant that ancient Egyptians had an extensive understanding of anatomy and generally managed to correctly infer the roles of major organs (though famously not the brain). They did prescribe medicines (which helps document their treatments and ancient pharmaceuticals). They are known to have used 160 distinct plant products for their medicinal uses.Some of the other earliest doctors recorded were moreorless contemporaries of Peseshet. Polymath Imhotep (late 27th century BCE) was ultimately deified and the Greeks identified him with their own god of medicine, Asklepios, so it is assumed he was a physician, though there is little hard evidence of this. Hesy-Ra (3rd Dynasty, 2687-2649 BCE) lived roughly the same time and is identified as both official and dentist. The fact that there were dentists at this time gives us a hint that there were already different medical specialists. Others include ophthalmologist, gastroenterologist, and proctologist; midwives were separate from doctors and were all female.  I think this indicates enough overlap with our own ideas about science and medicine to legitimately recognize Peseshet as an ancient trailblazer and woman in STEM.
I think this animation is a bit speculative, as the inscription above are all the specifics about Peseshet's life, but it does help bring to life how the Ancient Egyptian doctors did do things we expect doctors to do, such as dispense medicines, study anatomy, keep records, study and teach existing medical knowledge, but also involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic.
I made this new portrait of Peseshet, adapting my previous portrait of "Merit Ptah". The hieroglyphs indicate who she is (in fuschia) and her role. I have taken some artistic license and hope that this is reasonably accurate. Luckily for me, ancient Egyptians were not hung up on careful spelling and were pretty flexible in their use of hieroglyphics, so I hope that my combination gleaned from different sources is reasonably accurate. The rest of the hieroglyphs read "wer swnwt per aa" where "wer" means chief and I believe can be indicated by the swallow, "swnwt" is the feminine form of doctor, indicated by the arrow, pot and half-circle (for the feminine -t suffix), and "per aa" means great house or palace (the sort of rectangle with a opening is house and the last irregular shape indicated great).
Jakub Kwiecinski, 'Merit Ptah, “The First Woman Physician”: Crafting of a Feminist History with an Ancient Egyptian Setting,' Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 75, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 83–106,
Published: 22 November 2019 
Michelle Star, 'The Story of That Famous Female Physician From Ancient Egypt Is Actually Wrong, ' Science Alert, 17 DECEMBER 2019
John F. Nunn, Acient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002  
Merit Ptah, wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018 and October 2020
Méryt-Ptah (médecin dans l'Égypte antique), wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
27th-century BC women,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 201827th-century BC women, 
Ancient Egyptian Clothing,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
Ancient Egyptian Costume History, Decoration and Coloring,  Costume and fashion history. Traditional Historical clothes, accessed March 2018
Tom Tierney, Ancient Egyptian Fashions, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover. p. 2. ISBN 9780486408064.
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, wikipedia entry accessed March 2018
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, from Ancient Egypt Online, accessed March, 2018
Aleksandrovna, J.O and Lvovna, M.G, The Social status of physicians in Ancient Egypt. Istoriya meditsiny (History of Medicine), 2015. Vol 2, No. 1, pp. 55-71.
Histoire de la médecine en Egypte ancienne, website accessed March, 2018
John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002
Bruno Halioua, and Bernard Ziskind, Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs, London Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2005. ISBN: 0674017021 9780674017023
H.W. Jansen, A History of Art, 3rd Edition, Harry N. Abrams, 1986 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Rosalind Franklin, revealing the the double helix of DNA, the structures in carbon materials and the shapes of viruses

Roaslind Franklin, linocut, 11" x 14", by Ele Willoughby 2020


Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958), the English chemist and x-ray crystallographer whose x-ray diffraction images were instrumental to discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, has been on my to do list for scientist portraits for years and I've finally got around to it. I think it's the messiness and tragedy of her story that made it a challenge. The version of Franklin which is best known by the general public, is the version presented by the Nobel laureate once described by E. O. Wilson as "the most unpleasant human being I had ever met" James Watson, in his biography The Double Helix, published in 1968. Not only does he call her patronizingly Rosy, he presents her as a dowdy data-hoarding scold who "had to go or be put in her place". Ironically, his biography hurt his own reputation (though he's quite skilled at hurting his reputation more recently, what with the repeated pro-eugenics, racist, homophobic and sexist comments). Watson confessed, “Rosy, of course, did not directly give us her data. For that matter, no one at King's realized they were in our hands.” Strangely, after the publication of their DNA structure papers, Watson and Franklin were on friendly terms, exchanged letters and he even once offered her a lift across the US. His version of her as the villain emerged years after her death, when he wrote the book; some (like Franklin's biographer Maddox) suggest guilty feelings about the irregular way her data was accessed and insufficiently cited are the explanation. Before the book was published, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Linus Pauling, Max Perutz and Rosalind's brother Colin all protested angrily at her portrayal (as well, often, as the portrayal of themselves and other scientists), especially as she could not defend herself. This forced Watson to add an epilogue praising her as a scientist and claiming he hadn't sufficiently appreciated the experience of women in science at that time. Wilkins wrote to Harvard University Press that the book remained disgraceful and they dropped it; it was published instead by Athenaeum Press, becoming a bestseller.

There's a joke amongst scientists that goes, "What did Watson and Crick discover?" "Rosalind Franklin's notes." And while it's important that her contributions are now recognized posthumously, there's more to her story and to the story of DNA research. Ironically, the famous Photo 51 produced by Franklin's graduate student Raymond Gosling, which Maurice Wilkins quietly shared with Watson and Crick and cemented their thinking about molecular structure, is a photo that Franklin had previously presented at a seminar attended by Watson (where he failed to notice it, presumably thinking patronizing thoughts about "Rosy"). Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded Nobel prizes in 1962, after her death.  Though this was prior to the institution of the informal rule against awarding posthumous Nobels, Franklin was not nominated. Before her life was cut tragically short by ovarian cancer, both prior to and after her DNA research, Franklin also made invaluable contributions across disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, working to determining the structure of RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. Even aside from her role in determining the structure of DNA, her research was a great benefit to society. I wanted to make sure my portrait represented all of this.

But first, this is a wonderful comic by the one and only Kate Beaton:


by Kate Beaton
by Kate Beaton from Hark, A Vagrant

Rosalind was born in 1920, the second of five children born to a liberal, affluent and influential London Jewish family. Her father was a merchant banker and his uncle had been Home Secretary, the first practising Jew to serve in the British Cabinet. Her father taught electricity, magnetism and history of the Great War, at the Working Men's College and eventually became Vice Principal. Her family helped settle Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, especially children from the Kindertransport. They took two of the children into their home. Rosalind attended St. Paul's school, a leading girls' private school, one of few girls' schools which taught physics and chemistry. She excelled at sciences, languages and sports and won a scholarship for university. Her father asked her to donate the funds to a refugee student. She studied chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge, completing her undergraduate studies in 1941. Due to the sexist attitudes of the day, women were not granted full degrees, but "degrees titular," until 1948 (when previous women's degrees were retroactively awarded). In her last year at Cambridge she met a French refugee and former student of Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Adrienne Weill; this friendship was an opportunity to practice her French and became important in her career.

She began a PhD project on the polymerisation of acetaldehyde and formic acid under the supervision of Ronald Norrish, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Cambridge and later a Nobel laureate. It was not a fruitful collaboration. His own biographer described Norrish as "obstinate and almost perverse in argument, overbearing and sensitive to criticism" and Franklin grew to despise him and resigned. She gladly took an opportunity to transfer to the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) at Kingston-upon-Thames. She began focusing on the porosity and density of coal, to learn how to increase the efficiency of the widely used fossil fuel resource. Her work also had important implications for the effectiveness of the activated-charcoal filters in Second World War gas masks, issued to the entire British populace in case of gas attack. In working to accurately determine the porosity of coal, she made what was likely the first demonstration that coal acts as a molecular sieve (letting helium molecules through but not larger hexane and benzene). This property is still important to industry today.

She completed her doctorate on the structure of carbon materials in 1945 (and once again, as a woman, had to wait to be awarded her full degree until 1948). Her friend Adrienne Weill suggested she attend a Royal Institution meeting in London where she might meet Marcel Mathieu and Jacques Méring. At this conference her interest was sparked in x-ray diffraction and she met the great crystallographer J.D. Bernal (with whom she would later work). Impressed with her paper Méring offered her a researcher post in Paris to continue her work on carbons for four happy years. Méring was a x-ray crystallographer, who employed the way substances diffracted x-rays to deduce their structure and he taught her how to apply this method. By 1950 she had published a paper in Nature about the structure of carbon, and by the following year had learned that as carbon in the form of coal burns, it can form one of two structures: graphitizing and non-graphitizing (terms she coined). In my portrait, the pattern on her jacket is based on her own publication of the structure of non-graphitizing carbon. She showed these two structures explained the difference between the two possible products of burning coal: cokes and chars, and how they burn. This research had important industrial applications. She continued to write papers about the structure of carbon until she died. 

She returned to England in 1950 to work with John Randall, head of the Biophysics Research Unit at King’s College, on a three-year Turner-Newall Fellowship. She planned to look at protein structure but he suggested she work on DNA, as Maurice Wilkins was doing. Randall did not clarify whether Franklin or Wilkins would lead this research, which set their relationship off on the wrong foot. Randall reassigned Wilkin's graduate student Raymond Gosling as her assistant; this surely also did not help things between them. Franklin refined and adjusted the fine-focus X-ray tube and microcamera ordered by Wilkins, improved upon his technique by manipulating the critical hydration of her specimens and employing all her physical chemistry expertise. Wilkins inquired about this and felt her reply was superior. Her directness and enjoyment of a good debate were a bad match for his shyness and distaste for arguments, and their personalities clashed badly.

As early as November 1951, Franklin presented their data at King's College London and noted,

"The results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing 2, 3 or 4 co‐axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit, and having the phosphate groups near the outside."

Franklin and Gosling found there were two forms of DNA: long and thin when wet (dubbed B-DNA) and short and fat when dry (dubbed A-DNA). Because of their conflicting personalities, Randall divided the labour so Franklin and Gosling studied the A form and Wilkins the B. They produced beautiful images of DNA during this time, including Gosling's famous Photo 51 (represented in blue in my portrait). By 1951, the King's researchers all believed B-DNA was a helix, but Franklin felt the evidence for A-DNA was still conflicting. Through painstaking work, by January 1953, Franklin reconciled the conflicting data, concluding both forms had two helices. She drafted three papers, and two noted the double helical DNA backbone. She had also decided to leave the unpleasant atmosphere at King's and move to Birkberk College. Randall insisted that the DNA research stay at King's and Gosling would be reassigned back to Wilkins.

Meanwhile in Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick were simultaneously working on the problem and had seen a preprint of Linus Pauling's incorrect proposal for DNA. They came to King's to urge collaboration to win the race before Pauling discovered his error. Thanks to Franklin's identification of the nature of the symmetry of the DNA crystals (that is, its space group), Crick understood that DNA strands were antiparallel (and that both Pauling's model and Watson and Crick's previous model were incorrect). Unable to find Wilkins they spoke with Franklin who was unimpressed by Watson's implication she could not interpret her own data; they argued. Wilkins arrived, commiserated with them, and showed Watson Franklin's work and Gosling's DNA image.  From Wilkins' perspective, Franklin was leaving, and Gosling was now his student; but it seems he did not let Franklin know he had done this. In February 1953, Watson and Crick began working on a molecular model of B-DNA, something Franklin felt was premature, with much of the data based on work at King's. Crick got access to many of Franklin's crystallographic calculations when his advisor Max Perutz gave him a report written for a Medical Research Council biophysics committee visit to King's in December 1952. Though not explicitly marked confidential there was an expectation that such a report would not be shared and Perutz later defended this action with inexperience with administrative matters. Franklin's A-DNA paper was submitted 6 March 1953, one day before Crick and Watson had completed their model on B-DNA. She had not seen Watson and Crick's work when she submitted her paper (though they had of course benefited from seeing her, Gosling and Wilkin's work). Her laboratory notebooks reveal that she had already Franklin noted that ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’ all on her own. Franklin got to see the model built by Watson and Crick on April 10 and apparently commented, "It's very pretty, but how are they going to prove it?" Her philosophy as an experimentalist was to be able to rigourously prove a model correct before publishing. Franklin did modify her paper while in press, after seeing the others' work to acknowledge their work. A trio of DNA papers were published as 25 April 1953 Nature articles. Watson and Crick's paper only acknowledged "having been stimulated by a general knowledge of" Franklin and Wilkins' "unpublished" contribution. Due to agreements between the directors of the King's and Cambridge labs, Wilkins and Franklin published the two other DNA articles with x-ray diffraction data supporting Watson and Crick's model (rather than presenting them as the data which underpinned the model). Watson and Crick invited Wilkins to be a co-author but he declined because he had not help build the model. He later lamented that they can not discussed authorship more thoroughly. 

It may have been less than obvious to Watson and Crick how to cite materials they used, including Photo 51 and the MRC report, but it is something that they could have been done and ethically, many argue that they should have done. Likewise, Watson and Crick were aware of Franklin and Gosling's paper (which included Photo 51), submitted before she saw their work, but they merely noted that their model was not inconsistent.  Any mention they made of Franklin is in combination with, and after naming Wilkins. There is a strong case to be made that Franklin's work was insufficiently credited, and its value and role in determining the structure of DNA has only be recognized posthumously. There's no evidence that Watson and Crick ever let Franklin know what they later acknowledged, that they could not have made their model without out her work, or that she felt insufficiently recognized in their publication. They remained friends during her life and continued to correspond about their respective research projects.

By mid-March, Franklin moved to the much less fancy but much more pleasant Birkberk College, having been recruited by physicist John Desmond Bernal. She was much more comfortable at the non-denominational Birkbeck than the Anglican King's. Though Bernal wanted her to move on from nucleic acid, she continued to mentor Gosling and aid him with the completion of his thesis. The two published the first evidence of the double helix in the A form of DNA in the 25 July issue of Nature. With funding from the Agricultural Research Council, she was able to start her own research group and begin working on RNA and the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), an RNA virus. In my portrait her brooch is a model of TMV. She published her first major TMV paper in 1955 in Nature, in opposition of prominent and powerful virologist Norman Pirie, who wrote her angry, condescending letters and refused to ever again supply her with virus samples to study. But her careful observational work was once again correct. With her grad student Kenneth Holmes she found the protein covering was molecules arranged in helices. Early in 1954, she happened to meet Aaron Klug on the stairs at work. She showed him her photo of the TMV and he wrote, it sealed his fate. Captivated, he sought permission to switch to virus research. They began a long and fruitful collaboration. She oversaw a group with her students, Aaron Klug and his student John Finch and the group published on TMV, cucumber virus 4, turnip yellow mosaic virus and other plant viruses. She had a student James Watt supported by the National Coal Board and continuing her longstanding research interest in carbon. With postdoc Donald Caspar she showed that the RNA was wound on the inner surface of the hollow TMV.  She had begun working on the structure of the Polio virus, receiving with Krug the large grant ever at Birkbeck. While traveling in the US in 1956, she noticed her stomach had swelled and she went to the doctor upon her return. They found two tumours. She had ovarian cancer. She continued working when not hospitalized or convalescing with family and friends (including Francis and Odile Crick, with whom she remained close). Her group produced seven papers in 1956 and six in 1957, despite the cancer. She  was promoted to Research Associate in Biophysics on the 25th of February. Tragically she was not able to proceed with the polio research as her health rapidly deteriorated. She was invited to display a large model of TMV in Brussels at Expo 58, the first major international fair after World War II; the fair opened the April 17, but she died April 16, 1958 of bronchopneumonia, secondary carcinomatosis, and ovarian cancer. It's possible that x-ray exposure played a role in the cancer. Science during the 1950s was far too laissez-faire about radiation shielding. The following year, Klug and Finch published the polio virus structure and dedicated the paper to her memory.

By 1962 the scientific community at large was convinced of the structure of DNA, and Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The rules preclude splitting the award more than 3 ways and Wilkins' inclusion was based not only on his role in discovery but his later work providing data to support the model. As Franklin foresaw, it took years of work to actually convincingly prove the "pretty" model. But, even Watson suggested that Wilkins and Franklin might instead have shared the Nobel in Chemistry. Franklin was never nominated, even though this predates their rule against posthumous prizes.

Also, her long-term collaborator on virus structure, Aaron Klug continued the work he began with Franklin, winning the 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes. Her staunchest defender, and beneficiary of her will, he spoke of her and her impact upon him in his acceptance speech.

Today, she has become one of the most widely recognized researchers in the history of science, with many awards, buildings, plaques and monuments in her honour, worldwide. Elucidating the structure of DNA has perhaps had the most impact on society at large, but her research in carbon and on viruses also has lasting significant impacts in science.  


Brenda Maddox,  'Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of the DNA,' HarperCollins, 2002.

Brenda Maddox, The double helix and the 'wronged heroine'. Nature 421, 407–408 (2003).

Peter J. F. Harris and Irene Suarez-Martinez, 'Rosalind Franklin, Carbon Scientist', Carbon, vol. 171,  January 2021, pp. 289-293 

'Rosalind Franklin was so much more than the ‘wronged heroine’ of DNA', editorial, Nature 583, 492 (2020)

'Rosalind Franklin,' Wikipedia, accessed October 2020.

Mathew Cobb, 'Sexism in science: did Watson and Crick really steal Rosalind Franklin’s data?' The Guardian, Tuesday 23 June, 2015. 

, Rosalind Franklin

 Dainton, Sir Frederick Sydney (1981). "Ronald George Wreyford Norrish, 9 November 1897 – 7 June 1978". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 27: 379–424. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1981.0016. JSTOR 769878. S2CID 72584163