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Rosalind Franklin 1920 - 1958

Rosalind Franklin was a skilled X-ray crystallographer who pioneered the use of this technique in analysing complex materials such as large biological molecules. Her images of DNA enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to deduce its double-helix structure and she went on to lay the foundations of structural virology. She died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.

Rosalind Franklin was born on 25 July 1920. At a young age, Rosalind showed herself to be both bright and determined to become a scientist. She passed the Cambridge University entrance exam in 1938 and went there to study physics and chemistry.

In 1942 she left Cambridge to join the British Coal Utilization Research Association where her work focused on the effective use of coal and charcoal. This led to her doctorate in 1945 and helped launch the field of high-strength carbon fibres. By the age of 26, she had published five research papers. She then moved to the Laboratoire Central des Sciences Chimiques de L'Etat in Paris. There she used X-rays to create images of crystallized solids including complicated structures like biological molecules.

Rosalind took up a Research Fellowship with John Randall at King’s College, London in 1951. She was to build up a unit to work on biological materials and soon began working on dioxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Maurice Wilkins, the laboratory's second in command who had already been working on DNA, seemed to feel that Rosalind was there to assist his work and behaved as though she were a technical assistant. Relations between the two became extremely strained. Rosalind suspected that she was ill-received because she was a woman - Kings College still had a tradition of segregation.

By designing a suitable X-ray camera and using bundles of DNA fibres finer than ever before, Rosalind produced beautiful X-ray photographs of two forms of DNA. She deduced from these she deduced that the backbone of the molecule is on the outside and that the structure might be a helix.

At Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick were also seeking the structure of DNA. Accounts differ - and controversy remains – about exactly what happened, but it seems that at some point Wilkins unguardedly showed Watson a particularly excellent diffraction photograph by Rosalind. Watson, who with Crick was already significantly on the track of a helical structure but not a double helix, later wrote “The instant I saw the photograph, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race”. According to some sources, Wilkins shared all Rosalind’s data with Watson and Crick without her knowledge, allowing them to publish the proposed double helix structure of DNA in the April 1953 issue of Nature. However, the same issue contained a paper by Rosalind and her research student, R Gosling, supporting their views.

By this time, Rosalind had joined J D Bernal, who was well known for encouraging women students in their careers, at Birkbeck College where she continued to use X-ray techniques to study viruses, laying the foundations for modern structural virology.

From autumn 1956, Rosalind's health began to fail and she had long periods when she was ill or recuperating. Often in pain and often close to exhaustion, she refused to stop working, publishing 17 papers in five years. On 16 April 1958 she died from ovarian cancer, aged 37, and was thus excluded from consideration for the Nobel Prize, which is never awarded posthumously. The 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins.

Other honours, though, have followed. The Royal Society has just awarded for the first time the annual Rosalind Franklin Award for an outstanding scientist or engineer who is committed to encouraging women and girls to participate more fully in science, engineering and technology.

There is a 'London blue plaque' on the house where she lived in 'Donovan Court, Drayton Gardens, LONDON SW7'.
Click here for a list of books about her.

Acknowledgement The administration of the IOP kindly allow me to use this text which is their copyright and was written as part of the booklet "Opening doors on physics" accompanying the opening of 80 Portland Place 19 - 23 May 2003.

Page last updated 20 Nov 2013