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Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)




Rosalind Franklin 

So who was Rosalind Franklin?

Rosalind Franklin was born in London, England on 25th July 1920. She was the eldest daughter of a family of five children. Her parents were from a family of merchant bankers and believed that girls were educated to get married and then do charitable social work as adults. This was to be the cause of some friction between Rosalind and her father.

Rosalind attended St Paul's Girls' School, London, where she displayed great talent in physics and chemistry. From there she went up to Newnham College, Cambridge in 1938. After graduation in 1941, she was awarded a research scholarship to work on gas chromatography, but left in 1942 to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where she worked on the microstructure of coke. As a result of her research, she gained her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) degree from Cambridge in 1945.

Rosalind moved from Cambridge to gain experience in X-ray diffraction techniques. She went to work with Jacques Mering at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L'Etat in Paris during the years 1947-1950. Her project involved the investigation of the changes to carbon fibres when they became graphite on heating.

What did Rosalind do after this?

As a result of her new expertise in this new technique, Rosalind was asked to join a research group at King's College, London, by John Randall. Rosalind had been asked to set up a laboratory to study DNA fibres using X-ray crystallography, where atoms can be precisely mapped by looking at the image of the crystal under an X-ray beam. When she arrived at King's, John Randall was away and she encountered Maurice Wilkins, who was particularly unpleasant towards her, as he considered her his inferior. Rosalind had been assured that she was to be given equal status, and must have regretted her decision to leave Paris where she had been happy. Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins were both working on separate projects, each being concerned with DNA, with Rosalind having the responsibility for determining the structure of DNA.

Franklin was able to apply her knowledge of physical chemistry and controlled the humidity whilst taking X-ray photographs. As a result, she made thinner fibres, in order to produce more exact, and easier to interpret X-ray patterns. She discovered A and B forms of DNA, but concentrated on A as it showed more X-ray spots. This form does not show the helical structure as well as form B, which she originally thought of as a ladder with bonds between the bases of the rungs. She did record in her laboratory notebook on the 24th February 1953 that she had revised her thinking to that of a three dimensional helix.

At a seminar to give updates on current research, John Randall presented Rosalind Franklin's data and her conclusions, as yet unpublished. Somehow this information got to Watson and Crick in Cambridge, who used the data, together with that of other scientists to produce their detailed description of the structure of DNA. They were quick to publish in Nature on 25th April 1953. Franklin also had a supporting article in the same edition.

What followed from this?

Rosalind had started at Birkbeck College, London, where she worked in J D Bernal's laboratory and actually wrote her findings on 17th March 1953, just before the Watson and Crick paper. She continued as a research scientist working on the tobacco mosaic virus and also on the polio virus.

Tragically, Rosalind died aged 37, on 16th April 1958 due to ovarian cancer. It appears that she was not given the credit or respect she deserved for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA.