Jenifer Glynn: remembering Rosalind

20 July 2020

Interview with 

Jenifer Glynn

NEWNHAM-COLLEGE.jpg

Newnham College

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Regrettably Rosalind’s scientific career was sadly cut short when she died from cancer aged only 37. Greatly missed by her loved ones, she came from a big family with 4 siblings. Speaking with Eva Higginbotham her sister, Jenifer, has many fond memories...

Jenifer - My name is Jenifer Glynn, I'm the younger sister of Rosalind Franklin. I think it was always clear from the start that she was going to be a scientist. She loved developing photographs at home. My grandparents had a dark room she could use, and my mother was keen on photography, developing photographs. She enjoyed actually using the chemicals and doing it was a great pleasure to Rosalind as a child.

Eva - Rosalind's enthusiasm for science took her all the way to Newnham college at the University of Cambridge. One of only two colleges at Cambridge at the time that was open to women.

Jenifer - Rosalind went to Newnham in 1938. Everyone was delighted. Even my grandfather, who was perhaps the most conservative member of the family, gave her a present of five pounds, which was a lot of money in those days. I went to see her in her first year, went with my parents. And I, sorry to say that I was only eight, and all I can remember is the baby ducks on the river. But I did stay with her for a weekend when she was a research student. And she was a marvellous hostess thinking of everything that a 12 year old might enjoy. And it was a very memorable weekend. We saw all the standard Cambridge sites and went on the river. Being imaginative she also took me to see the Newnham baker stirring a great vat of dough, which I also remember with tremendous pleasure. She worked very, very hard at Newnham, but being outside was always important to her: hockey and tennis and cycle rides and skating she was very keen on. But most of her time really was spent on very hard work. She was very perfectionist in her nature, was always determined to do extremely well. It may be surprising to find how very nervous she was about exams, very unsure of herself in that way, right from when she thought she wouldn't get a school scholarship right through to university exams, and even her PhD, she thought would fail. Of course she always did extremely well, but it was a worry. Never anything came easily to her. She always worked very hard for it.

Eva - The university had come a long way in how it treated students who were women, but there were still remnants of the past to contend with.

Jenifer - There were occasional lecturers that would still address their audiences as gentlemen, quite regardless of who was there

Eva - After completing her degree in 1941, Rosalind was awarded a research fellowship at Newnham, and she worked for time at a physical chemistry laboratory at the university. But, the second world war was in full swing and she had to do some war work, which she was very keen to do. She worked for a firm called the British Coal Research Association, where she investigated the structure of holes in coal, which helped in the manufacture of gas masks. The work she did there counted for her PhD.

Jenifer - She was very fortunate in getting a post in France. She loved France, and she was lucky enough to find a post in a French lab, which was investigating the structures of coal and was doing it with the technique of x-ray crystallography, which she was able to learn there. It gave us sort of continuity to her researches because it was always connected with the structure first of coals, then later of DNA, and then of viruses. And although she was not a biologist by training, but a chemist, it was the same techniques that she was then able to apply to biology.

Eva - After four very happy years in France, Rosalind took up a position at King's College London, where she did her famous work on DNA. However, being a woman in science didn't come without its challenges.

Jenifer - It was certainly male dominated. You have to work even harder and be even more sure of what you were doing. That possibly may have inhibited her from guessing in the way that say Crick and Watson did. You had to be terribly sure before you published anything, she did find the male atmosphere that King's uncongenial to say the least.

Eva - I asked Jenifer if she thought Rosalind would be surprised at the attention that her life story and family story have received over the years.

Jenifer - Yes. Simple answer. I think she'd have been totally amazed actually. She would have been very amazed at the idea that she became a sort of feminist icon. It was not, I think, anything in her mind at all. She was just a scientist who wanted to do it all she could in that way, although nothing would please her more than the fact that it perhaps encourages girls into science.

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