If you have as much as heard of ‘DNA’, the name Rosalind Franklin should be synonymous with it. This pioneering scientist played a crucial role in solving one of the great scientific questions of her time, and unfortunately did not live long enough to be given her due.
Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist born in the 20th Century. She graduated with a degree in Chemistry from Cambridge (where she witnessed the appointment of its first ever woman professor Dorothy Garrod), and later joined King’s College, London, where she worked on X-ray crystallography of DNA crystals. It was a time when the greatest minds in Biology and Chemistry were working on one elusive question: what is the structure of DNA? This was particularly important because DNA is the molecule responsible for carrying genetic information; knowledge of its structure would help us understand how this genetic information is carried across generations.
Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology was in the race, as was a motley group from Cambridge consisting of two future Nobel Laureates James Watson and Francis Crick. In King’s College itself, Franklin was working with Maurice Wilkins on obtaining pictures of DNA, which would in turn help determine its structure. Franklin was a brilliant experimentalist, whose X-ray pictures showed a clarity rarely seen in experiments of the time. It was unfortunate that a personal spat between Franklin and Wilkins led to antagonism between them. As all the different groups worked on their own methods to get to the bottom of the question, Wilkins passed on one of Franklin’s X-ray pictures to James Watson, and the echoes of the ‘aha’ moment that followed are still coursing through the pages of history. This picture, famously called Photo 51, was critical evidence that helped Watson and Crick subsequently identify the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1962; Franklin had succumbed to cancer by then, and the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously.
Franklin was, by accounts of all those who knew her, a fun-loving, intelligent, well-read woman, full of life, and possessed with a great deal of warmth to those to she cared about. She made important contributions to science in different fields of research; after her work on DNA, Franklin continued working on the molecular structure of viruses (a continuation of her research by Aaron Klug would later win another Nobel Prize). In the annals of history, however, she has gone down as the one history denied.
Today, Franklin remains a source of inspiration to both scientists and women everywhere. Particularly inspiring are these words of hers, written to her father when she was a student at Cambridge that serve as a presentient statement to the scientist she would become. “You speak of science as some sort of demoralizing invention of man, as something apart from real life, and which must continuously be guarded and kept away from human existence. Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Shweta Ramdas @shramdas
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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is an absorbing biography of Franklin that sheds light on her personality and journey as a scientist.
The 1987 film, Life Story tells the story of the search for DNA. In 2015 a play by Anna Ziegler called Photograph 51, starring Nicole Kidman (who won a Best Actress award for her portrayal or Rosalind), told the story with more focus on Rosalind Franklin’s input. You can purchase an MP3 audio reading of the play here.
This is a great video about Rosalind’s life: