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Rosalind Franklin

Page history last edited by Woodrow 10 years, 1 month ago


Rosalind Franklin

          By: Woodrow Kavanagh


     Rosalind Franklin (b. 25 July, 1920 - d. 16 April, 1958) is without a doubt, one of the most controversial scientists of her era. Her controversy was only matched by her intelligence. Franklin’s contribution towards the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule was crucial. It was so crucial that she would have most likely have been award a Nobel Prize had she not passed away. Watson and Crick used her work to discover the helical structure of DNA, the double helix, which they received a Nobel Prize for. The controversy sparked by the misuse of her work solidified Franklin in the science hall of fame.



     Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London, on July 25th, 1920.  Born into a prominent Anglo-Jewish banking family, Franklin and her four siblings were encouraged to develop their individual aptitudes. Ellis Franklin, her father, was a partner at Keyser’s Bank[1]. Franklin attended St. Paul’s Girls Schools (one of the few schools in London where girls were allowed to study science) where she was groomed towards a career path rather than just marriage. As a child, Franklin demonstrated an aptitude for math, science, and language (she eventually learned French, Italian, and German). According to her mother, Muriel, “All her life Rosalind knew exactly where she was going, and at sixteen, she took science for her subject.”[2] Later, Franklin attended Newnham College (one of the two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) where she majored in physical chemistry. Upon completing her degree in 1941, Franklin’s hard work was manifested into a scholarship for another year of research, along with a research grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research[3].

Despite the raging World War, Franklin chose to continue to pursue her degree, she began working with the newly organized British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA). Franklin continued to work at BCURA for four years, her work at BCURA was impressive enough to become a doctoral thesis, Franklin then received her PhD from Cambridge University in 1945 along with five scientific papers. With the war coming to an end in 1945, Franklin began to pursue different work. Adrienne Weill assisted Franklin in acquiring a position in Jacques Mering’s lab at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l'Etat in Paris, here Franklin first analyzed carbons using x-ray crystallography (x-ray diffraction analysis) which she became renowned for; her acquisition of this skillset would later prove to be a life-defining moment[4].

      In the fall of 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Over the next 18 months, Franklin received numerous surgical operations and treatments. There were several periods of remission, in which Franklin returned to her lab and sought funding for her search team. Unfortunately, Franklin died at the young age of 37 from ovarian cancer on April 16th, 1958.[5]


Contributions to STEM

      Franklin is best known for her contribution towards the discovery of the double-helix DNA model. Franklin used X-ray diffractions which bombards x-ray beams toward a small sample of the crystal substance being studied. After spending another four years working in Paris, Franklin decided to return to England in 1949. Franklin’s friend, Charles Coulson, proposed the idea of looking into x-ray diffraction studies of large biological molecules. Awarded a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship, Franklin began her work under John T. Randall’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College London in 1950. Randall initially sought to utilize Franklin’s x-ray diffraction prowess on proteins; however, at the suggestion of the assistant lab chief, Maurice Wilkins, Franklin was assigned DNA instead.  Wilkins originally thought he and Franklin would be working together; however, she was assigned to work with another graduate student Raymond Gosling. As Franklin’s x-ray diffractions became increasingly clear, in 1951, Franklin discovered two forms of DNA, wet and dry. Franklin stated the wet form as being helical in structure with phosphates on the outside of the ribose chains; however, her mathematical analyses of the dry form did not indicate a helical structure. Franklin later devoted over a year of study and research to resolve the differences between the wet and dry form of DNA. By early 1953 Franklin concluded that both forms, wet and dry, had two helices.[6]

     Interestingly, Maurice Wilkins once again played a pivotal role; James Watson and Francis Crick were working on their theoretical model of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, in January 1953, they were able to review Franklin’s x-ray diffractions shown to them by Wilkins. By April, Watson and Crick then published their paper on the double helical shape of DNA in the Nature. Watson and Crick were not in close contact with Franklin; furthermore, Franklin was not informed that her findings were used, thus Franklin recevived no credit. Later in the spring of 1953, Crick later admitted that Franklin was merely a few steps away from attaining the correct structure of the DNA molecule.[7]

     In his book, The Double Helix, Watson attempted to strip Franklin of all involvement in discovering the helical structure of DNA, in fact he even stated that “to her mind there was not a shred of evidence that DNA was helical”. It was not until 2002, that Watson gave Franklin appropriate credit for her work, stating “The Franklin photograph was the key event.”[8]


Interesting Facts

       Most people are unaware of Franklin’s triumphs outside of DNA. In 1953, Franklin relocated to J.D. Bernal’s crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College where she began to study the three-dimensional structure of plant viruses. One of the viruses Franklin studied was the Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). Franklin once again used the techniques she previously used to diffract DNA patterns to produce the finest diffraction patterns of TMV available. Franklin was able to discover that TMV’s genetic material was embedded in the inner wall of its protective protein shell.

     While completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, Franklin worked on the porosity of coal, comparing the density of coal to helium. By grinding coal into fine powders from the British Isles, Franklin discovered that the pores in coal contain a myriad of minute constrictions, and the deviation of their permeability of pore space from one coal to another is closely associated with the deviation in the width of their constrictions. During Franklin’s time period, the equipment was so difficult to operate due to overheating and breaking down, that her exposures were sometimes 100 hours or more[9].

  • Rosalind Franklin never married nor did she have any children, she devoted her life to chemistry. 
  •  Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science was named in her honor
  • In an effort to promote women in STEM fields, the Royal Society established the Rosalind Franklin Award, which is given to any outstanding contribution to any area of natural science, engineering or technology.


Impact to 21st Century Society and Culture

       Without Franklin’s contribution towards the discovery of the double-helix model of DNA, it is not certain when Watson and Crick would have been able to produce their model. By understanding the shape of DNA we were able to make rapid advancements in genetics. We are currently 10 years out from completing the Human Genome Project which was initialized by Watson himself. During the 1990’s people started to view DNA as data storage devices and eventually in 2010, scientist, Craig Venter became the first to embed coded information inside the DNA molecule of a synthetic cell. In January, a team led by Cambridge geneticist Ewan Birney encoded Shakespeare’s sonnets, a video of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the infamous paper published in 1953 by Crick and Watson. Currently, using DNA as a storage device is only useful for archiving because the writing and decoding process is too slow, but it alludes to greater uses of DNA.[10]

     The implications of the double helix molecule are infinite; one of the more common used practices is gel electrophoresis. Gel electrophoresis is a method that separates the DNA molecule and allows forensic scientists to test for genetic ties between family members or to recreate a crime scene. The use of gel electrophoresis has aided law enforcement in solving a myriad of cases across the world.

     Whilst the encoding and duplication of DNA are set in stone, the same cannot be said for the molecule itself. In recent years, there has been tremendous progress towards reinventing the DNA. The original four letter DNA model is now a six letter model, with the addition of Z and P. The new letters Z and P do not hold meaning yet, similar to if we were to add a letter to the English language.[11]


Works Cited

Angela N. H. Creager and Gregory J. Morgan “After the Double Helix” JSTOR 4 Feb. 2014: 239-272. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin.” ChemHeritage. Chemical Heritage Foundation, n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award and Lecture.” Royalsociety. The Royal Society, n.d. Web 28 Feb. 2014.

Rutherford, Adam. “DNA double helix: discovery that led to 60 years of biological revolution." The Guardian. The Guardian Mag., 24 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Othman, Jazilah Bte. “What Reading The Double Helix And The Dark Lady of DNA Can Teach Students (And Their Teachers) About Science.” Teaching Science 54.1 (2008): 50-53. ERIC.   Web. 4 Feb 2014.

“The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.” Profiles in Science. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“The Rosalind Franklin Papers The DNA Riddle: King’s College, London 1951-1953.” Profiles in Science. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“The Rosalind Franklin Papers The Holes in Coal: Research at BCURA and in Paris, 1942-1945.” Profiles in Science. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

[1] “James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin.”

[2] Othman 52

[3] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.”

[4] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.”      

[5] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.”      

[6] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.”      

[7] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers Biographical Information.”      

[8] Othman 51

[9] “The Rosalind Franklin Papers The Holes in Coal: Research at BCURA and in Paris, 1942-1945.”

[10] Rutherford, Adam

[11] Rutherford, Adam

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