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The Forgotten Women of Early Genetics Research

Ahead of International Women’s Day this week, let’s appreciate some of the women that paved the way for what we know about genes and DNA today.


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Ellie Harris

3 years ago | 3 min read

Until relatively recently, it was common for women not to be credited for their work towards scientific publications, or for them to be credited to a lesser degree than male colleagues.

Last year a group of researchers decided to test their theory that women were underrepresented among authors in the early days of population genetics work. Their results were published in Genetics, and found that of the papers they looked at, only 7% had women as credited authors.

However, when looking at the footnotes of these papers, women made up 47% of ‘acknowledged programmers’. In the early 1900s when population genetics was a fast growing area of study, all calculations had to be done by hand.

So, even though women were putting in immense amounts of work and brain power through their mathematical abilities, they were apparently not worthy of the title ‘author’.

Of the women below, some were deservedly credited for their research at the time it was published, and some unfortunately were not. They all, however, massively influenced the field of genetics research and a lot of the knowledge we have today on the subject was built from their discoveries.

Nettie Stevens (1861–1912) — Nettie was one of the earliest pioneers in the field of cytogenetics, the study of chromosomes. In the late 1890s, a group of German scientists had stated that chromosomes somehow influence traits being passed from parents to offspring. Expanding on this knowledge, Stevens discovered what we know today as the ‘sex chromosomes’. She went on to pinpoint exactly how these specific, unique chromosomes, now termed X and Y, influence the biological sex of offspring.

At the time of discovery, another scientist was also working on a similar idea of sex being determined by specific chromosomes — Edmund Wilson. Until Wilson read Nettie’s work, he still believed that the environment could impact sex determination in some way, upon reading her research he changed his mind. Despite this, it is often Wilson that is solely credited for the whole idea.

Although somewhat later than deserved, thankfully Stevens later became one of the first women in history to achieve recognition for scientific research.

Charlotte Auerbach (1899–1994) — Auerbach was born in Germany and her love of science began at an early age, sparked by stories her grandfather told of his own discoveries as a neuropathologist. In 1942, Auerbach and colleagues were able to prove that mustard gas caused mutations in fruit flies.

Throughout World War II the research was highly classified, however was finally published in 1947 which led to the emergence of mutagenesis as a field of study.

Auerbach went on to lead a long academic career in the UK, publishing 91 scientific research papers and was awarded the Darwin Medal in 1976 for her contribution to science.

Barbara McClintock (1902–1992) — Originally a botanist, McClintock spent her early career investigating the genetic properties of maize. Through this work she contributed to several major cytogenetic discoveries including genetic cross-over during meiosis, and the role of centromeres and telomeres.

Her most notable discovery came in the 1940s, when she demonstrated that some genetic elements were capable of moving around within the genome, from generation to generation. Previous to this it had been assumed that DNA was one continuous, stable structure.

Although many scientists were sceptical of McClintock’s work on transposable genetic elements for many years, it eventually led to her winning the Nobel Prize in 1983. To this day, she is the only woman to ever win the prize alone in the category of Physiology or Medicine.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) — Probably the most well known story of a woman in science being denied her right to authorship, Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in the discovery of the true structure of DNA, in its double-helix form. During her time at King’s College London, Rosalind was partnered with Maurice Wilkins and tasked to find the elusive composition of DNA molecules.

The pair did not see eye to eye and in a bid to gain fresh insight, Wilkins ended up showing some of Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images to other scientists, Watson and Crick, without Franklin’s knowledge.

The photo that Wilkins shared clearly showed a helical structure, and was the missing piece of the puzzle that Watson and Crick had been searching for. Watson, Crick and Wilkins went on to publish the work, with no acknowledgement to Franklin’s efforts. It was not until after her death years later that Franklin’s contributions were recognised.

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