Rosalind Franklin


© Novartis Foundation

Rosalind Franklin: Unsung Hero of DNA’s Double Helix

Published On: January 12, 2024By

The Early Years: A Passion for Science

Rosalind Franklin, born on July 25, 1920, in London, showed an early aptitude for science. Her affluent Jewish family fostered her education in a time when women were often sidelined in academia. She attended one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry, paving her way to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.

The War Years: A Stepping Stone

Franklin’s scientific journey was interrupted by World War II, but she didn’t let this halt her progress. She joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where her work on coal and carbon helped improve gas mask designs, contributing significantly to the war effort. This work also led to her doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University.

The Pivotal Shift: DNA Research

Post-war, Franklin’s focus shifted to X-ray crystallography, a decision that would place her at the center of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century. In 1951, she joined King’s College London, where she was tasked with applying her X-ray diffraction techniques to DNA fibers.

The Breakthrough: Photo 51

Franklin’s methodical approach and expertise in X-ray diffraction culminated in “Photo 51,” taken in 1952. This image was crucial in deciphering the double helix structure of DNA. However, the path to this breakthrough was fraught with gender bias and professional rivalries, notably with her colleague Maurice Wilkins and the duo James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge.

The Controversy: Recognition Denied

Franklin’s pivotal role in discovering the DNA structure was overshadowed by the Nobel Prize awarded in 1962 to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Her contributions were largely unrecognized, partly due to her untimely death from ovarian cancer in 1958, at the age of 37. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, and her critical contribution to the discovery was not fully acknowledged during her lifetime.

The Legacy: A Pioneer Remembered

Today, Rosalind Franklin is celebrated as a pioneering figure in molecular biology. Her story is a poignant example of a woman’s struggle in a male-dominated scientific community and the posthumous recognition she deserved. Her determination, skill, and significant findings in X-ray crystallography have left an indelible mark on science, paving the way for numerous advancements in genetics and beyond.

In conclusion, Rosalind Franklin’s legacy extends far beyond “Photo 51.” Her life is a testament to the resilience and brilliance of a scientist who persevered in the face of adversity. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of life at the molecular level, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Franklin, whose unrelenting pursuit of knowledge continues to inspire generations of scientists, especially women in STEM. Her story, now more widely known and celebrated, serves as a powerful reminder of the crucial contributions of women in science and the importance of acknowledging their achievements.


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