Rosalind Franklin


Rosalind Elsie Franklin, the second of four children and the first daughter of Ellis Franklin, a wealthy Jewish banker, and Muriel Franklin (née Waley), was born on July 25, 1920, in London. Although raised in a happy home where children were encouraged to develop their individuality, Rosalind felt discriminated against because she was a girl, a feeling that surfaced again, along with an awareness of anti-Semitism, when she was working on DNA at King's College.

In 1938 Franklin graduated from St. Paul's Girls' School in London, where, at age fifteen, she decided to become a scientist. Although her father disapproved of college education for women, she attended Newnham College, a women's college at Cambridge University, from which she received a bachelor's degree in 1941. She spent a year (1941–1942) working with future (1967) Nobel chemistry laureate Ronald George Wreyford Norrish, after which she contributed to the World War II effort by working as a physical chemist for the British Coal Utilization Research Association (1942–1945). Her research on the structural changes caused by heating coal resulted in five publications, earned her a doctorate, and made her a recognized authority on crystallography and industrial chemistry.

English biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, who made important studies in the structure of DNA.
English biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, who made important studies in the structure of DNA.

Franklin's next three years (1947–1950) were spent as a research scientist at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'État in Paris. She became a researcher at King's College, London, in 1951, where she began to work on the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the physical basis of heredity. Her relationship with DNA coworker Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (b. 1916), a biophysicist from New Zealand, soon degenerated into one of mutual dislike. In England two laboratories were working on the crystalline structures of biological materials: King's College was working on DNA, and the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was working on proteins. The American James Dewey Watson (b. 1928) and the Briton Francis Harry Compton Crick (b. 1916) decided that DNA research was more exciting than the protein research in which they were thought to be engaging at the Cavendish.

Franklin discovered that DNA occurs in two forms (the "A" form, which is more crystalline, contains more water than the "B" form, which is the form that occurs in cells). When Watson and Crick visited King's, Wilkins showed them Franklin's x-ray diffraction photographs of the "B" structure. Her critique of Watson and Crick's earlier work helped them reformulate their structure. However, she failed to recognize the significance of the particular crystal symmetry system ( monoclinic C2 symmetry) of "B" DNA. Crick, who was working on hemoglobin, which possessed C2 symmetry, recognized that this meant that the strands of nucleic acid are antiparallel, so they could serve as templates for each other. This insight, together with Watson's knowledge of Erwin Chargaff's base pairing, led to their final success. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962.

Watson and Crick wished to publish quickly, before Linus Pauling, but were embarrassed that all the experimental work had been performed at King's, and Franklin's data had not been published. The heads of King's and the Cavendish approached the editors of Nature, who agreed to publish three articles in a single issue (April 25, 1953).

Watson and Crick's short paper was followed by an analysis by Wilkins, A. R. Stokes, and H. R. Wilson of the x-ray crystallographic data and Franklin and her graduate student Raymond G. Gosling's conclusion that the phosphate backbone of DNA lies on the outside of the structure. The Watson and Crick paper provided the experimental evidence for the helical structure of nucleic acids. Actually, Franklin and Gosling's paper provided the basis for Watson and Crick's structure, rather than being a confirmation of it.

Because Franklin and Wilkins were hardly speaking to each other, Franklin left King's College in 1953 for Birkbeck College, also in London, where she finished her DNA work and became head of the team studying tobacco mosaic virus. Franklin died of ovarian cancer on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37.

SEE ALSO Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) ; Double Helix ; Pauling, Linus ; Watson, James Dewey .

George B. Kauffman


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Maddox, Brenda (2002). Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

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Sayre, Anne (1975). Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Watson, James D. (1968). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA. New York: Atheneum.

Internet Resources

Franklin, Rosalind, and Gosling, Raymond G. (1953). "Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate." Nature 171:740–741. Available from .

"NOVA: Secret of Photo -51." PBS Online. Available from .

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