Rosalind Franklin: The Unsung Hero Behind the Discovery of DNA’s Structure

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. This amazing woman also pioneered the use of X-ray diffraction. She overcame personal and societal strife to make one the of the greatest discoveries in science. Today, July 25th would have marked her 97th Birthday. And so it seems only fitting to honor her life and contribution to science.

[Image Source: Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images via Wikipedia]

Early years and education

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London in 1920. The daughter of an affluent and influential Jewish family she would later become an icon for women around the world. She showed exceptional intelligence from an early age and knew she wanted to pursue a career in science at the tender age of 15. Much to the distress of her father, he didn’t feel it was appropriate for his daughter. Despite this, Rosalind Franklin received her education at several institutions including the North London Collegiate School. Here she excelled herself in the sciences.

In 1938, Rosalind Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge where she studied Chemistry. In 1941 she successfully completed her undergraduate studies, acquiring a Second Class Honors degree in her final exams. After graduation, Rosalind Franklin went on to work as an assistant research officer for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. In this role, she would spend her time studying the porosity of coal.

This work would ultimately form the basis for her 1945 Ph.D. thesis “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal”. In the autumn of 1946, Rosalind Franklin was appointed Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques De l’Etat in Paris. Here she worked with famed crystallographer Jacques Mering.

Under her tutelage with Jacques, Rosalind would learn about X-Ray diffraction which would ultimately equip her with the knowledge needed to help her discover the structure of DNA. She would also pioneer the use of X-rays to produce images of crystallized solids in complex unorganized matter, not just “simple” crystals.

Exposing DNA

Rosalind Franklin began working as a research associate at the Biophysics unit of King’s College London in January of 1951. Director John Randall saw the potential for using her expertise in X-ray diffraction techniques (mostly on proteins and lipids in solution) for analyzing DNA fibers. Rosalind Franklin and her student, Raymond Gosling, set to work studying the structure of DNA using her mastered techniques. They soon made some amazing discoveries.

Using X-ray diffraction, the duo managed to capture images of DNA and actually found that there appeared to be two forms of it. Form A, or dry form, and Form B or wet form. It was one of these images, namely Form B, that would later come to be known as Photograph 51. It would form critical evidence to support the team’s reconstruction of the structure of DNA as we know it today.

Photo 51 [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

As innocuous as this image seems, though stunning, it belies that time and work that went into actually producing it. Rosalind Franklin would invest hundreds of hours of work on a machine refined by her own creation. As DNA does not “like” to be in crystal form she needed to develop an X-ray technique that would get around this issue.


Around the time of her death in 1958, John Desmond Bernal, a prominent British X-Ray crystallographer spoke very highly of her.

“As a scientist, Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook,” John noted. “Her photographs were among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs.”

Although she was a talented scientist her grievance with Maurice Wilkins, a colleague would ultimately cost her greatly. For reasons unknown, though we can guess, Wilkin’s released her Photo 51 to James Watson without the permission of Francis Crick or her knowledge. James was a competing scientist at the time who was also working on his own competing model for DNA.

According to author Brenda Maddox in her 2002 book titled Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, James was amazed by what he saw. When Watson saw the photo, he apparently said:  “My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race,”. From this groundbreaking photograph, he and Crick would quickly realize it must have a double helix structure.

Pipped at the post

Both Crick and Watson would go on to base their famous model on the photo that Rosalind Franklin captured. They published their findings in March of 1953 much to the acclaim of the scientific community. The two would later win the Nobel Prize in 1962. Crick and Watson, apparently, also took full credit for their “discovery”. Their findings published in Nature in 1953, included a footnote that acknowledged they were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s and Wilkin’s unpublished contributions to the field.

In fact, most of their work was deeply rooted in Rosalind Franklin’s photo and general labors. Unpublished drafts of her papers written just before she left King’s College would later show that she had independently determined the structure of DNA. She had even located the phosphate groups on the outside of the double helix. Sadly, her work was later published third in a serious of articles in Nature. They would, to the casual reader, merely seem to support Crick and Watson’s work rather than be seen as the foundation for their findings

Maddox would later reveal that Rosalind Franklin was completely ignorant of the fact that these two men based their Nature article on her research. She didn’t even complain. Franklin “didn’t do anything that would invite criticism … [that was] bred into her,” Maddox was quoted as saying in an October 2002 NPR interview.

Her untimely demise

Rosalind Franklin would later leave King’s College in March of 1953. She relocated to Birkbeck College where she would study the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus as well as the structure of RNA. Rosalind Franklin ‘s departure from King’s College did come with a price, she was not to conduct any research on DNA. Instead, she would focus her attention back on the structure of coal. Over a five year period, she published 17 papers on viruses and her group built the foundations of structural virology.

In the Autumn of 1956, Rosalind Franklin would receive the terrible news that she was suffering from ovarian cancer. Despite her continuing research for the next few years and having three operations and experimental chemotherapy, she would ultimately succumb. After a ten month remission, she continued her work right up to several weeks before her death on the 16th April 1958. She was 37 years old, a sad end to a wonderful scientist.

Sources: BiographyAskABiologistRosalindFranklinSociety

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