In celebration of
February 11, International Day of Women & Girls in Science
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a brilliant and meticulous research scientist whose interdisciplinary work made fundamental contributions to various areas of science – the most notable one being the discovery of the DNA double helix. Franklin’s name isn’t the one that comes first to mind when one considers the Nobel-winning discovery. Still, her incredible experimental skill, methodological ideology, and technological expertise, highlight Franklin’s legacy as an outstanding scientist committed to scientific research.
Born on the 25th of July, 1920, to an Anglo-Jewish family in Britain, Franklin was keen on studying science from a very young age. She attended St Paul’s Girls School – one of the few schools in London that taught science to girls – and in 1938, she attended Newnham College of Cambridge University to study physical chemistry. At the time, Newnham College was one of the two women’s colleges in Cambridge. Franklin was awarded her BSc in 1941; but as a woman, according to the rules at the time, she technically wasn’t allowed to graduate. Franklin continued her studies at Cambridge by earning a fellowship for research in physical chemistry. In addition to the challenges of being a female scientist in a primarily male-dominated field, the rise of Hitler and the Second World War defined her research and course of action. Franklin served as a London air raid warden, and in 1942, she gave up her fellowship to work for the British Coal Utilization Research Association investigating the physical chemistry of carbon and coal for the war effort. This research later proved valuable for manufacturing wartime devices like modern gas masks. Despite the adversity, Franklin earned her doctorate in 1945 from Cambridge University.
After receiving her doctorate, Franklin accepted a research position at Paris where she studied X-ray crystallography techniques. When Franklin joined King’s College in 1951, she started working on X-ray diffraction methods to study the DNA; at that time, very little was known about the DNA structure. The X-Ray image her team captured – named ‘Photograph 51’ – was a major breakthrough as it made the double helical structure of the DNA evident for the first time. Based on this image, and Franklin’s published and unpublished data, in 1953 Watson and Crick were able to suggest the double helix structure of DNA as it is accepted today. This discovery earned Watson, Crick and Wilkins, a coworker of Franklin’s at King’s College London, a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962. Until this day, it is disputed whether Franklin knew her data had been shared. Franklin’s contribution to the DNA model was not acknowledged by Watson and Crick, neither when they first published the DNA model nor when they received the Nobel Prize. James Watson only credited Franklin’s work and her integral contribution to the discovery of the DNA model in his ‘The Double Helix’ book in 1968. In 1953, Franklin moved to Birkbeck College, where she continued working on coal, DNA and plant viruses. During her time at Birkbeck, she won a prestigious award worth of 3-years of American funding – the largest sum ever allocated to Birkbeck College at the time. Although she wasn’t able to continue her work on plant viruses, the continuation of that research earned her student, Aaron Klug, a Nobel Prize in 1982.
In 1956, Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She continued to work while battling the disease and published several papers during that time until her death in April 1958. Throughout her 16-year career, Franklin published a total of 45 articles on coals and carbons, DNA and viruses. Unfortunately, during her lifetime, Franklin received very little recognition for her contributions to one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century – the discovery of the double helix. Although her life and cutting-edge research was halted by her untimely death, Rosalind Franklin made extraordinary contributions to science and played an invaluable part in shaping the scientific world. Today, in the hope of inspiring future generations of scientists, both females and males, we share her story and remember her as she would have preferred: first and foremost, as a scientist.
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life… it is based on fact, experience, and experiment… In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.”
Rosalind Franklin in a letter to Ellis Franklin, ca. summer 1940