Rosalind Franklin and the DNA Helix
The fourth in a series of four biographies about overlooked women in science
Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25, 1920 in London. She was curious about the world and excelled at science throughout her childhood. That curiosity fueled her later discoveries, which no one seems to know about. Rosalind Franklin used X-rays to capture portraits of DNA that changed biology as we know it. American author, educator and scientific researcher Ruth Lewin Sime said, “Hers [Franklin’s] is perhaps one of the most well-known — and shameful — instances of a researcher being robbed of credit.”
Franklin went to one of the very few girls’ schools in London that taught subjects like physics and chemistry. At just 15, she decided to become a scientist. This was unusual at the time, especially for women. Franklin’s own father was opposed to higher education for women and apparently wanted Rosalind to be a social worker.
Franklin pursued science anyway, and whether her father was in agreement or not is unknown. In 1938, she enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge and graduated three years later.
During her time at Newnham College, Franklin determined the density, composition and structure of coal, a fossil fuel that was used to heat homes and to power industry. She wanted to research the porosity of coal, specifically how to make it burn more efficiently.
According to Nature, “As Patricia Fara, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge, UK, points out, the porosity of coal was also a key factor in the effectiveness of Second World War gas masks, which contained activated-charcoal filters. As such, Franklin indirectly aided in the design of the personal protective equipment of her day.”
In 1942, she quit her graduate fellowship after a year, to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. This is where she began her fundamental studies of carbon and graphite microstructures. Her work there was the foundation for her later discoveries.
After earning her doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945, she spent 1947–1950 in Paris. During those three productive years, she worked with Jacques Méring at the State Chemical Laboratory, where she studied X-ray diffraction techniques. X-ray diffraction uses X-rays to determine the atomic and molecular structures of crystals.
In 1951, Franklin came back to England to work at John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London as a research associate. Franklin was hired because of her knowledge in X-ray crystallography, the science of using X-ray diffraction. Franklin was one of the best X-ray crystallographers in her time, and Randall wanted her to work with the structure of DNA using these techniques.
In that same year, she crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins in Randall’s lab. Both Wilkins and Franklin led separate research groups and projects, although both concerned DNA. When John Randall made Franklin head of her own DNA project, Wilkins was away at the time. Upon his return, he assumed she was an assistant, treating her as such because of her gender. Yet they held the same position — and thus were peers at Randall’s laboratory.
Unfortunately, his mistake was not unique. Sexism was pervasive, especially in STEM jobs, and the climate for women was hardly welcoming. Franklin experienced many other injustices throughout her career. Just while working at Randall’s lab, her colleagues would go to men-only pubs after hours. And, only men were permitted in the dining rooms of the university.
However, Franklin pushed through and worked relentlessly. Her DNA project was progressing. J. D. Bernal, an Irish X-ray crystallographer called her photographs of DNA, “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”
Between 1951 and 1953, Franklin was on the brink of understanding DNA structure. However, Crick and Watson beat her to publication.
Wilkins showed Watson one of Franklin’s crystallographic photographs of DNA, known as Photo 51. It was called this because it was the 51st diffraction portrait that Franklin took. This photo was shared without Franklin’s knowledge or consent. When he saw the picture, he recognized the correct structure for DNA, something Franklin would have figured out not long after. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins published their findings immediately in a series of Nature articles in April, 1953. Franklin’s work only came up as a ‘supporting article’ in that same issue of the journal.
Photo 51 of the DNA molecule and Franklin’s expertise were essential to understanding DNA’s structure, but her contributions were never properly acknowledged. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their findings. Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in 1958 in London, four years earlier.
At the center of Rosalind Franklin’s tombstone in London’s Willesden Jewish Cemetery is the word “Scientist,” followed by the words, “Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind.”
Her accomplishments include, but are not limited to:
- Laid the foundation for structural virology
- Served as a London air raid warden
- Researched the physical chemistry of coal and carbon for World War II
- Discovered the density of DNA
- The Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, given out annually by the Royal Society in her honor
- Won the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize posthumously in 2008
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life…”