Rosalind Franklin: The Forgotten Scientist that Discovered the Structure DNA

It’s 1953, and the prestigious journal, Nature, had just fired the gun for what would become the ‘DNA Revolution’. This would inevitably begin a tremendous growth in science – one that hadn’t been seen since Gregor Mendel’s discovery of hereditary. Those responsible and contributing to the DNA structure were scientists, Linus Pauling, an American chemist, James Watson, an American biologist, Francis Crick, a British physicist; along with Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, both X-ray crystallographers working at King’s College London.

Scientists James Watson and Francis Crick looking at their DNA model located at the Cavendish Laboratory in the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom in 1953. Colorization by Malakon

Rosalind Franklin was born on the 25th July 1920 to Muriel Waley Franklin and Ellis Franklin, both of whom came from esteemed families, and who were a fourth-generation British family. Franklin showed an early interest in Chemistry and Physics at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London – eventually leading the young Franklin to embark, and consequently complete her bachelor’s degree in natural science with an emphasis on physical chemistry from Newnham College, Cambridge. However, before her journey into science, Franklin studied French in Paris. Upon returning, she was encouraged by physicist Adrienne Weill to follow on into a doctorate in chemistry. It was Franklin’s subsequent work at Cambridge and in Paris where she learned the fine technique of X-ray crystallography. Briefly, X-ray crystallography involves separating DNA from a cell, then ‘crystallising’ that DNA. Once done, the DNA is exposed to X-rays in which each individual atom diffracts. The result is a shadow imaged onto photographic negatives. This method essentially communicates a 3D position of atoms in a crystallised molecule.

At the age of 31, Franklin was offered a fellowship in DNA research in the John T. Randall laboratory, King’s College London. Franklin did not fit the mould that existed in England at the time – unmarried, and a great scientist who pursued excellence. All this in an environment that was circulated by the elite males that dominated research laboratories at the time. Despite the often-unsympathetic portrayal by James Watson, Francis Crick described Rosalind’s character by pointing out, “[I] don’t think Rosalind saw herself as a crusader or pioneer. I think she just wanted to be treated as a serious scientist.”

Scientist Rosalind Franklin in color. Colorization by SammCam

In May of 1952, Franklin photographed the DNA structure. In lecture notes dating to November 1951, Rosalind writes, “[The] results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing 2, 3 or 4 co-axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit…” Moreover, a presentation delivered by Franklin showed that the DNA backbone lies not inside, but outside of the molecule, along with its basic structure being helical. Franklin was instrumental in her detailed work in which her X-ray photographs clearly revealed the structure of DNA. Credit of the DNA structure’s discovery was given to Watson, Crick and Wilkins – Rosalind Franklin was never properly acknowledged. Without Franklin’s knowledge on X-ray crystallography, the DNA structure would have been left in the hands of Watson, Crick and Wilkins, who, unequivocally, would never have solved the DNA structure without Franklin’s expertise on X-ray crystallography.

The x-ray photograph of the DNA structure that scientist Rosalind Franklin produced.

On April 16, 1958, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at the age of thirty-seven years old. As Nobel prize awards are given only to living persons, only Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the prize for the combined efforts. Watson, in 1999, said of Franklin, ‘[Rosalind’s] X-ray work…was the proof that it [DNA molecule] was right.’

Rosalind Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, Italy during the Spring of 1950.

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