SENIOR POWER... the dark lady of DNA

By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday March 22, 2013 - 11:06:00 AM

Herstory was coined to emphasize that women’s and girls’ lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs have been neglected, undervalued, or distorted in standard works. “Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” is the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month, March 2013. 

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) exemplifies herstory to the hilt. Scientific American published an article, “As the 2008 laureates are announced, SciAm looks back at some of Nobel history's also-rans. No Nobel for You: Top 10 Nobel Snubs.” Three of the ten snubees were women: Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner. 

Brenda Maddox, Franklin’s biographer, refers to the dark lady of DNA. Franklin was a very capable scientist. She was also unmarried, childless, from an affluent Jewish family, a Cambridge University graduate, keen on hiking and outdoorsy stuff. And female. A British molecular biologist, biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer, her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA led to the double helix discovery. Shakespeare’s Rosalind (As You Like It) is one of his most recognized characters, admired for her intelligence, quick wit and beauty. 

In molecular biology, the double helix refers to the structure formed by double-stranded molecules of nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA. James Dewey Watson and Francis Crick were awarded the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Physiology-Medicine for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nuclear acids and its significance for information transfer in living material. Ten years after Franklin's death, Watson published his The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Sexism pervades his memoir, an international best-seller. He denigrates her work and refers to “Rosy” in patronizing terms, a name she never used. Much later, Crick acknowledged, "I'm afraid we always used to adopt – let's say, a patronizing attitude towards her." Watson’s 2001 biographical Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix identifies him as “co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.” 

Franklin died in 1958 at age thirty-eight, four years before Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize. Franklin continues to be overlooked (e.g. currently by PBS News) in accounts of the discovery of the double helix. When the guys got their Nobel Prize, which is never awarded posthumously, she was dead. (Ovarian cancer.) 

Maddox argues that Watson and Crick appropriated Franklin's work without her permission and without proper acknowledgment. And she acknowledges that Rosalind Franklin was herself "not immune to the sexism rampant in these circles." In a letter to her parents in January 1939, Franklin called one lecturer "very good, though female." 


Suffragist Alice Stokes Paul (1885-1977) believed that “There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it. This world crisis came about without women having anything to do with it. If the women of the world had not been excluded from world affairs, things today might have been different.” With Lucy Burns and others, she led a campaign for women's right to vote that resulted in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. Like the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), it mentions neither women nor men: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” 

After the Nineteenth Amendment provided women with the right to vote, the National Woman’s Party turned its attention to passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. Congress passed and most states ratified the amendment, but at the last minute in 1982 it was stopped by the coalition of conservatives’ STOP ERA campaign, which, according to organizer Phyllis Schlafly (1924- ), is an acronym for Stop Taking Our Privileges. 

Under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, using a male rather than human standard, the courts have been able to justify discrimination. In 1995 the National Organization for Women (NOW) held an ERA Summit to draft language for a new ERA, contending that to achieve true equality, paradigm (a contemporary euphemism) shift was needed. NOW members resolved to proceed with an expanded constitutional amendment strategy that would eliminate discrimination based on sex, race, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, national origin, color or indigence. Members also called for further study of age and disability as classes to be included in the struggle for constitutional equality... I’ll drink to that. 

“March 5, 2013: WASHINGTON – In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Centennial Anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., and the upcoming International Women’s Day, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) today reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution as well as legislation to award its original author, New Jersey native and renowned suffragette [sic] Alice Paul, with a Congressional Gold Medal.” 


Older Women's Health News 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug to treat postmenopausal women who experience pain during sexual intercourse. The drug Osphena (ospemifene) mimics the effects of estrogen on vaginal tissue, which can become thinner, drier and more fragile from menopause. The pill, taken with food once a day, makes vaginal tissue thicker and less fragile, reducing pain during sex (dyspareunia). … 


What about Premarin vaginal cream, which has been around for a while, I wonder? 

And "Oral estrogen hormone therapy [appears to be] linked to increased risk of gallbladder surgery in menopausal women" according to a large-scale study of more than 70,000 women in France published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Women who took estrogen therapy through skin patches or gels did not appear to be at increased risk. Gallstone disease is common in developed countries, and women age 50+ are most at risk. Other risk factors include obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, poor diet and having given birth to two or more children. A large study of 70, 928 menopausal women in France between 1992 and 2008 looked at whether hormone therapy increased the risk of gallbladder surgery (cholecystectomy) for complications of gallstones. In France, hormonal therapy is usually administered topically rather than orally. North America and the United Kingdom prefer oral hormone therapies. 

Post-menopausal women, who often suffer from joint pain, could find some long-term relief by taking estrogen-only medication, according to a new study based on the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) that was released online yesterday by the journal, Menopause

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has entered the debate over the two vitamins that are thought to strengthen bones to prevent breaks. According to the government-backed panel, older women should not take vitamin D and calcium supplements to prevent broken bones, and there is insufficient evidence to say whether it would help anyone else either. Approximately 1.5 million Americans annually suffer from breaks tied to brittle bones. And about half of all women over 50 years old will end up with a break linked to the bone-weakening osteoporosis disease. The Task Force links broken bones to chronic pain, disability and increased risk of sickness and early death. Based on reviews, the panel found there were no benefits but some risk for post-menopausal women taking low-dose, below 400 international units, vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams of calcium supplements daily. 

The Urogynecologist’s domain includes urinary incontinence and numerous female pelvic floor dysfunctions and disorders, among them the infamous UTI — urinary tract infection. The elderly are especially susceptible to frequent UTIs, which occur more commonly in women than men, with recurrences common. Complications of untreated chronic UTI in the elderly are great. Because they are more likely to have other chronic health problems or pre-existing conditions, such as a weakened immune system or heart valve problems, they are more prone to sepsis if their UTI is left untreated. 

People with pregnancy-related concerns fill OB/GYNs’ waiting rooms, while the postmenopausal woman waiting for the urologist can pass the time reading Esquire, Golf, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Popular Mechanics magazines… Be of good cheer, ladies. There is a medical doctor who specializes in your needs. 

Breast cancer incidence has increased in all European countries, whether or not national screening programs are in place. However, mortality experienced an annual decrease from 1997-2006. The number of deaths linked to breast cancer since 1992 in Spain has decreased among young and middle aged patients but not among the elderly. Spanish researchers predict that it will continue to decline over the next decade, although more slowly. This tendency is attributed to mammography and effective hormone treatments, chemotherapy and advances in radiotherapy and surgery. 

For women ages 66-74, a mammogram every two years appears as good as one every year. Risk of having breast cancer detected at a later stage is no greater if one screens every two years compared to every year, according to University of California, San Francisco Dejana Braithwaite, an assistant professor of cancer epidemiology at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. She compared annual with every-other-year screenings and the effect on whether the cancer was diagnosed at a late stage. She also compared how the two intervals affected the number of "false-positive" test results, in which mammograms interpreted as possibly showing cancer actually did not after further testing. Women screened every year were more likely to have false-positive results than women screened every two years. Braithwaite’s study is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, online Feb. 5, 2013. 

Access to long-term care insurance is being reduced. It is likely to become much more difficult to afford, especially for women. Long-term care is a women’s issue because they live longer and are the disproportionate beneficiaries of long-term care insurance. On average, women outlive men by five years. Those who reach age 80 will require three years of assistance. In nursing homes, 7 of 10 residents are women, and they represent 76% of assisted living facilities residents and two thirds of home care recipients. Medicare does not pay for this. Insurance companies are hiking premiums for existing policies, have stopped selling new ones, and are requiring blood tests and home visits instead of phone interviews for applicants. 

“Enhanced underwriting” refers to more stringent qualifying standards. The change that has generated the most public attention is “gender-distinct pricing,” a new strategy that raises rates for single women by as much as 40% beginning April 2013. Difficulty in obtaining new policies and rising costs should not be attributed to gender or to sex. 

Women with Alzheimer’s-linked gene show faster cell aging. Some women with a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease may have rapidly aging body cells, even when they are in apparently good health. On the other hand, researchers found, there were no signs of accelerated cell aging when those same women were on hormone replacement therapy. It is not clear what can be made of the findings, said senior study author Dr. Natalie Rasgon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. No one can say whether hormone therapy could lower the risk of Alzheimer's, or any other disease, in women who carry the gene variant — known as ApoE4. 

A study has found that women are at greater risk than men for hip implant failure. The majority of total hip replacement surgeries are successful, but women are at greater risk for implant failure after this procedure. Researchers noted this was true even after taking other individual risk factors into account. “The role of sex in relationship to implant failure after total hip [replacement] is important for patient management and device innovation,” the study authors wrote in the report published online Feb. 18, 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine

Postmenopausal women who have smoked are at much higher risk of losing their teeth than women who never smoked, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association by University at Buffalo researchers. The study involved 1,106 women who participated in the Buffalo OsteoPerio Study, an offshoot of the Women’s Health Initiative, the largest clinical trial and observational study ever undertaken in the U.S., involving more than 162,000 women across the nation. 

But a new study offers evidence that life expectancy for some U.S. women is actually falling, a trend that experts cannot explain. Research found that women age 75 and younger are dying at higher rates than previous years in nearly half of the nation's counties - many of them rural and in the South and West, especially among disadvantaged white women. Men’s life expectancy has held steady or improved in nearly all counties. Some theories blame higher smoking rates, obesity and less education, but several experts said they simply do not know why nor exactly how many women are affected. An estimate is 12%. The study, released by the journal Health Affairs, found declining life expectancy for women in about 43% of the nation's counties.