They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Rosalind Franklin was one such woman, but the odds are that you’ve never heard of her before.
Franklin was a truly brilliant woman scientist in the mid 20th Century. In her early years at school in London, she showed a talent for maths, science and languages, subjects which at the time, and perhaps still today, were seen as more masculine subjects. But, by the time she was 15, Franklin had set her heart on becoming a scientist.
At 18, Franklin followed her dreams by studying chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and in 1945, she received her doctorate in physical chemistry. After this, Franklin spent three years working in Paris, learning X-ray techniques and enjoying the relaxed Parisian atmosphere and culture.
Knowing that she wanted a serious scientific career meant that she had to leave France and return to England. In 1951 Franklin began work as a research associate at King’s College for a man called John Randall.
Randall set Franklin to work on the X-ray diffraction of DNA, but she would ultimately clash with Maurice Wilkins, another scientist who was working on DNA at King’s.
The two colleagues had very different personalities. She was direct, sometimes confrontational and always looked people straight in the eye, whereas he was shy, slowly calculating in what he said and avoided looking into peoples eyes. It was the beginning of a tense and difficult relationship that would have consequences later on.
Being a woman in post-war Britain was complicated. Women now had the vote after over 40 years of campaigning, but in the old fashioned atmosphere of universities, women were equals. Only the men of King’s College could eat in the dining halls and after work, they retreated to male only pubs.
Franklin carried on though, refining her X-ray techniques and with painstaking work, she was able to extract finer DNA fibres than anyone else had ever done before. She took photographs of DNA, which took hours upon hours of X-ray exposure to make, and it was “Photograph 51” that bought her incredibly close to discovering the structure of DNA.
What Franklin didn’t know was that her colleague Wilkins, who had been working on a DNA project of his own, shared her picture with two other scientists at Cambridge called James Watson and Francis Crick.
Because of her picture, Watson and Crick won the DNA race, coming up with the double helix structure of DNA.
They famously celebrated their discovery by running into The Eagle pub in Cambridge and announcing that they had “discovered the secret of life”. When they published their work in Nature, Franklin’s own work was published as a supporting article in the same issue.
Soon after this, in 1953, Franklin left King’s College for Birkbeck College, on the condition that she left her ground breaking DNA research behind. She went on to lead her own research team, using X-rays to study viruses. Once again, her work was pioneering, this time for modern virology.
In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Franklin was not included in the prize giving, as she had died in 1958 from ovarian cancer. Knowing what we do now about radiation, her cancer was probably caused by the exposure to the X-ray work that she loved so much.
50 years after the discovery of DNA, Franklin has become something of a forgotten name in genetics. She does have a lasting legacy however, not only did she carry out work that has changed the face of modern medicine, but the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in America is dedicated to her and her excellence. It’s just a shame that she never got to see the true impact of her work or the recognition she deserved whilst she was alive.