Inspiring STEM Women: Rosalind Franklin













Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist who made huge contributions to the discovery of the DNA double helix and the molecular structures of viruses, coal and graphite. Some of her work was appreciated whilst she was alive but her premature death meant her colleagues who worked with her both on DNA and viruses each received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1962) and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Franklin was born in 1920 London to an affluent family. From a young age it was clear that she possessed exceptional academic ability and aged 11 she attended St Paul’s Girls School in West London- one of the very few schools in London that taught Physics and Chemistry to women. Franklin did not show a firm interest in religion like her family and was later quoted to have said ‘Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated... [as to the] question of a creator…I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe.’  She excelled during her time at St Paul’s and graduated with six distinctions. She was awarded a scholarship for University, but her father did not want her to attend and instead gave her scholarship to a deserving refugee student.

Despite this, Franklin did attend Cambridge University to study Chemistry. Following completion of her Bachelors. She too excelled here and was awarded a research fellowship in the physical chemistry laboratory at the University of Cambridge, working under Ronald Norrish, who went on to win the Nobel Peace prize. Rosalind did not enjoy working under Norrish whom she eventually came to despise. She resigned and became an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association  where she helped classify coals and accurately predict their performance for fuel purposes and for production of wartime devices such as gas masks. Her work with coal became the basis of her PhD thesis for which she was awarded her PhD in 1945. She also volunteered as an Air Raid Warden where she patrolled during Air Raids.

Following World War 2 Rosalind worked in France, in Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris, as one of fifteen researchers under Jacques Mering. Here she observed Mering using X-ray diffraction to study rayon and other amorphous substances- contrasting previous crystal based experiments. She applied these same problems and methods to coal and its transition to graphite and following this published several papers,  which were regularly published monographs in ‘Chemistry and Physics of Carbon’.

Rosalind took up a three-year fellowship at Kings College in 1950 where she made her biggest advances around the research of the structure of DNA. Franklin worked alongside Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling. As the only experienced experimental diffraction researcher at Kings she started to apply X-ray diffraction techniques to the structure of DNA using a new fine-focus X-ray rube and (by using her physical chemistry background) manipulating the critical hydration of her specimens. Franklin and Wilkins had many differences and disagreements, despite this however, their research discovered that there were two forms of DNA. They called them “B” and “A”. Due to their ongoing differences however the director of the unit split the research at this stage, with Wilkins focusing on “B” and Franklin on “A”.

The X-ray diffraction pictures taken by Franklin during this time were called by J.D Bernal, ‘amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.’ Although by 1951 it was generally accepted at Kings that B DNA had a helical structure, Franklin and Gosling did not think this was the case for A. She wrote papers concluding that both DNA forms had two helices and wrote draft manuscripts containing a double helical DNA backbone. These were mailed before Crick and Watson had completed their model on B-DNA, and before she knew of their work.

Franklin decided to transfer to work at Birkbeck College but her director at Kings insisted the DNA work was to be left there. Around February 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson had started to build a model on the B form of DNA and through being shown a manuscript from Wilkins they realised the structure widely used by Kings was very similar to their first incorrect model. Much of their data came from research carried out by Wilkins and Franklin.  Due to Franklin's decision to move to Birkbeck, copies of her diffraction photos by Gosling were given to Watson and Crick who felt they had cracked the problem and would be able to complete the model. Watson and Crick finished building their DNA model in 1953, and acknowledged Franklin and Wilkins with a footnote saying they had been ‘stimulated by a general knowledge of “Franklin and Wilkins” unpublished contribution’ in the the publication of the double helix model in ‘Nature’ (1953). There was no mention of Rosalind.

Rosalinds final research position was at Birkbeck College where she studied under J.D Beral, who was known for promoting female crystallographers. She worked as a senior scientist with her own research group. She simmultaniously carried on working with Gosling and together they published the first evidence of a double helix in the A form of DNA in ‘Nature’ (July 1953.) At Birkbeck Franklin used X-ray crystallography to study viruses, amongst which were the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) and the RNA virus. She concluded that all TMV particles were of the same length, which directly contrasted the work of eminent virologist Norman Pirie, but was indeed correct. In 1956 Franklin and an American post-doctoral student Donald Casper published a paper showing that the RNA in TMV is wound along the inner surface of the hollow virus. In 1958 she was granted the largest fund ever received at Birkbeck to continue her research and in the first major international fair since World War 2 in Brussels (1958) Franklin was invited to make a 5-foot-high model of TMV. The fair with an exhibit of her virus model opened, one day after she died.

Franklin had been told she had two tumors in her stomach in 1956, yet even throughout her cancer treatment continued to work and produce results. Her team produced seven papers in 1956, and six more in 1957. In January 1957 she was promoted to Research Associate in Biopics but died on the 16th of April 1958, aged 37.


Posted on Tuesday Mar 15