The Woman Who First Pictured DNA
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DNA

A newspaper headline in 1939 declared "Woman Scientist Explains" when talking about Florence Bell because there were so few of them. The thing is Bell deserved the accolade, regardless of whether she was a man or woman. She was the first to take an image of our DNA using a technology called x-ray crystallography.

Shortly after graduating from Girton College in 1935, she began working with Lawrence Bragg and his father. The pair had won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of X-Ray crystallography.

The Braggs had shown how X-rays could be used to reveal the arrangement of atoms and molecules in simple crystals such as salt. Other scientists applied the technique to biological molecules and Bell left to join that work. Soon she began describing the structure of protein fibers in jellyfish, shark fins, and hair. Then she published images of the thymonucleic acid, what we now call DNA.

Descriptions using the images were helpful to the scientists Watson and Crick who eventually proposed the double helix model of the DNA we know today. That opened the door for molecular biology.

Bell's work halted when she was required to serve in World War two developing air radar systems. She then left for the US to marry and work for a petroleum company before quitting altogether to raise her children. She died in the year 2000 and makes us wonder what amazing work was left undone when Florence Bell left science.

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