Rosalind Franklin may not be a household name to many but she was someone who made huge contributions to the mapping of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Many argue that she may have been overlooked for years due to her gender. She was an English chemist and x-ray crystallographer who was an accepted expert in her time in regards to her knowledge of viruses and coal but her assistance to the unlocking of DNA was not recognized until many years after her death.

Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London (UK) into an influential liberal family in 1920. She was the eldest daughter of five children that showed exceptional scholastic abilities from an early age as well as an interest in cricket and hockey. She entered boarding school near the sea at age 9 because of her delicate health but changed to St Paul’s Girls School at age 11 because it was one of the few schools at the time that would teach chemistry and physics to girls. Here she excelled in Latin, science, sports, and learned German and French. She won many awards and a scholarship to university which her father requested they award it to a deserving refugee instead.

Franklin received her B.A. in physical chemistry in 1941 at Newnham College, University of Cambridge where she received a fellowship to conduct research in this field shortly thereafter. With the coming of World War II, she changed course and gave up her fellowship to help in the war effort. She became an air raid warden and began working for the British Coal Utilization Research Association. This work entailed research into the physical chemistry of coal and carbon which she also used to write her doctoral thesis. She continued her research into carbons and went to work at the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris with Jacques Méring from 1947-1950. Her work here using x-ray crystallography technology (a technique used to visualize the molecular structure of a crystal) led to discoveries in the structural changes caused by the formation of graphite in heated carbons which proved most valuable to the coking (the destructive distillation of coal in an oven) industry.

Franklin joined the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College, Cambridge in 1951 as a research fellow. It was here that she employed her x-ray diffraction techniques to the study of DNA. This was at a time when researchers did not know the chemical make-up and physical properties of DNA. Her analysis soon established that the molecule was one of helical shape. It was her x-ray patterns that laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick to make their 1953 Noble Prize-winning hypothesis that the structure of DNA is a double-helix polymer consisting of two strands wound around each other. She was recognized posthumously for her assistance to Watson and Crick’s discovery; the structure of DNA not being fully proven until much after her death.

Between 1953 and 1958, Franklin worked for the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London where she completed her work on coals, DNA, and started studying the molecular structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. It was during these studies that she discovered this virus was imbedded within the RNA. This led to the discovery that RNA was a single helix structure as opposed to the double-helix DNA of bacterial viruses and higher organisms. This was in direct contradiction to the ideas of the time of the preeminent virologist, Norman Pirie but ultimately proved to be correct.

Franklin died of complications from ovarian cancer in 1958; possibly caused (partially, at least) to her years of exposure to x-rays. She has been recognized for her contribution to science many times since her death and if she had lived longer, she arguably could have shared a Nobel Prize. Watson has suggested that ideally she and Maurice Wilkins would have been awarded one in chemistry for their work in RNA. Aaron Klug, her colleague and chief beneficiary was the sole winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1982 for his development of the crystallographic electron microscope and the discovery of the structures of nucleic acids-protein complexes, the exact thing that Franklin was investigating and introduced Klug to. This would make it highly plausible that she would have shared this prize.

–Janice Willson

Photo Source: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

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