If ever there was a case of someone who didn’t get the recognition she deserved, it’s Rosalind Franklin.
The British-born chemist did pioneering work that led to the discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the set of genetic instructions that tell cells how to carry out all of their normal activities.
James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering DNA’s structure. However, Franklin died of cancer in 1958 before the prize was awarded.
Today, some say Franklin was wronged by her male colleagues, while others say this view may itself be an oversimplification.
Whatever the truth, it’s clear that Franklin’s accomplishments have been largely overlooked.
Franklin’s early life
The Rosalind Franklin Papers tell the fascinating story of Frankin’s life, work, and legacy.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, in London, to Ellis Franklin, a partner at Keyser’s Bank, and his wife Muriel Franklin.
She was lucky enough to attend St. Paul’s Girls School, one of the few at the time that emphasised careers over homemaking. There, she showed a natural aptitude for science and languages.
In 1938, she enrolled in Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where she studied physical chemistry. Her subsequent studies would be shaped by World War II.
Franklin graduated in 1941, and spent a year working in the laboratory of R. G. W. Norrish, a pioneer in the chemistry of light. The following year, she embarked on a PhD related to the war effort. She worked for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, a nonprofit group promoting coal research, studying the microscopic structures of different coals and carbons.
After finishing her PhD, Franklin landed a job in the lab of French engineer Jacques Mering at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat in Paris. There, she learned how to image carbon-based compounds using a technique called X-ray crystallography — crystallizing proteins and other compounds and imaging them using X-rays — which she’d become an expert in.
In fact, her X-ray images would play a crucial role in the discovery of DNA’s structure.
‘Photograph 51’ and the structure of DNA
Franklin went back to England in 1950 to pursue a fellowship in the lab of a biophysicist named John Randall at King’s College London.
Though Randall originally wanted her to build up the lab’s work on crystalizing and imaging proteins, Maurice Wilkins, the assistant lab chief, suggested that she work on DNA.
Wilkins was planning to work together with Franklin, but a misunderstanding turned their relationship sour.
Instead, Franklin worked with graduate student Raymond Gosling to take X-ray images of DNA. They discoverd two forms of DNA, a “wet” form and a “dry” form. The wet form appeared to have a helix-shaped structure, like a spiral staircase, but the dry form didn’t, so Franklin spent a year trying to discover which structure was correct.
Meanwhile, the British biologist Francis Crick and American biologist James Watson were developing a theoretical model of DNA at the University of Camridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. In January 1953 Wilkins showed them one of Franklin’s X-ray images of DNA, now known simply as “Photograph 51,” as well as a summary of unpublished research which she had submitted to the Medical Research Council.
Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA that April in the journal Nature. They never told Franklin they had seen her photograph, but Crick later admitted she was only a few steps away from figuring it out.
Franklin and Gosling published X-ray findings in the same issue of the same journal, but the credit went to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins.
An unfair portrayal
Franklin ended up transferring to work in the lab of J. D. Bernal at Birkbeck College, where she studied the structure of plant viruses, especially tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) and poliovirus. She made detailed X-ray images of the viruses, and her work was recognised by the Royal Institution in 1956.
That same year, she was diagnozed with ovarian cancer. She underwent a number of surgeries and other treatments, but the treatments only worked temporarily, and she died on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37.
Watson published his memoir, “The Double Helix,” in 1968, depicting Franklin (whom he referred to derogatorily as “Rosy,” a nickname she hated) as bad-tempered and incompetent. In fact, many reviewers (including Crick and Wilkins) thought the portrayal was unfair.
“[If] ever there was a woman who was mistreated, it was Rosalind Franklin, and she didn’t get the notice that she should have gotten for her work on DNA,” said
Ava Helen Pauling, wife of famous scientist Linus Pauling, said in an interview with Lee Herzenberg in 1977.
While Franklin’s life may have been tragically cut short, her contributions to our understanding of DNA and viruses live on.
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