DNA and the woman
behind the mag stripe

credit-card-2308380_1280MOST PEOPLE COULDN’T tell you what DNA stands for (hint: deoxyribonucleic acid), much less pronounce it (dē-ˈäk … on second thought, never mind). But since its discovery in 1953, DNA has become a household initialism.

It’s no wonder, then, that the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Francis Harry Compton Crick, James Dewey Watson, and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.”

Just one problem. Why the hell was Rosalind Franklin omitted? After all, on its page dedicated to Franklin, UC San Diego’s San Diego Supercomputer Center recounts:

Franklin persisted on the DNA project. J.D. Bernal called her X-ray photographs of DNA, “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Between 1951 and 1953 Rosalind Franklin came very close to solving the DNA structure.

In fact,

… Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin’s crystallographic portraits of DNA. When he saw the picture, the solution became apparent to him, and the results went into an article in Nature almost immediately.

In the end, Rosalind Franklin …

… was beaten to publication by Crick and Watson in part because of the friction between Wilkins and herself.

Franklin’s tale has (at least) one corollary in banking.

It’s fairly well known among bank history buffs that IBM introduced the magnetic stripe for credit card use. It became the U.S. standard in 1969 and the international standard in 1971. As for the mag stripe’s origin, Wikipedia tells us:

Forrest Corry Parry (July 4, 1921-December 31, 2005) was the IBM engineer who invented the Magnetic stripe card used for Credit cards and identification badges.

And IBM tells us:

The first person to affix magnetic media to a plastic card for data storage was IBM engineer Forrest Parry. This was back in the early 1960s.

Trouble is, you have to read further to learn that Parry had some behind-the-scenes help. A few lines down, Wikipedia adds that Parry …

… had the idea of gluing short pieces of magnetic tape to each plastic card, but the glue warped the tape, making it unusable. When he returned home, Parry’s wife Dorothea … suggested that he use [an] iron to melt the stripe onto the card. He tried it and it worked.

Also a few lines down, IBM adds:

The story goes that he wanted to combine a strip of magnetized tape with a plastic identity card for officials of the CIA, and he couldn’t figure out how to do it. When he mentioned his problem to his wife, who happened to be ironing clothing at the time, she suggested that he use the iron to essentially melt the strip on. And that’s what he did.

Is it just me, or is “The story goes” diminutive? Either way, a fairer recounting might be, Credit for finding a way to place the magnetic stripe on plastic cards goes to husband and wife Forrest and Dorthea Parry.

On the positive side, at least Rosalind Franklin’s and Dorthea Parry’s stories can be found. A search for other banking innovations in which women might have had a hand turned up nothing, leaving me to wonder if Dorthea Parry’s tale was unique, or if history, per its habit, has simply overlooked banking’s female innovators. From a statistical standpoint, and from a look at other fields where female contributors have gone largely unsung, the latter seems more than likely.

The financial services industry today is awakening to the fact that women represent a huge chunk of the banking market, that banks overlook women at their peril (see Well’s Fargo’s “Women as customers”), and that women, once viewed chiefly as teller material, make powerful loan officers, managers, officers (see American Banker’s “Want to innovate? Hire more women”), and, finally, CEOs (see Bloomberg’s “A Female CEO of a Big Bank? The Odds Are Now Greater Than Zero”).

For a time banks’ laudatory treatment of women may have been or seemed, and to an extent may still be or seem, patronizing and self-promoting. If that is so, it is fast changing. The reality of women as a force speaks for itself.

I hope when my daughters are old enough to google “women in banking” and “banking innovations by women,” their search will be rewarded with a wealth of substantive, inspiring information.

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