DNA Photographer: Spotlight Scientist
Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920, and decided by age 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. Rosalind was known for her logic, intellectual debate, and keen sense of humor. She studied at Newnham College, one of two schools for women at Cambridge University. Even during World War II, Rosalind stayed in London, continuing her education through bombings and shortages. She volunteered as an air raid warden.
Education and Research
After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1941, Rosalind joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. There were few women working as professional researchers at the time. She studied the microstructures of carbons and coals, and her Ph.D. thesis was titled, “The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids with Special Reference to Coal and Related Materials.”
DNA Structure Captured in Photo 51
In 1950, Dr. Franklin shifted the application of her expertise in carbons from physical to biological chemistry. Working as a research fellow at King’s College London, she used X-ray diffraction to capture a groundbreaking picture of DNA. It took Dr. Franklin and Ph.D. student Raymond Gosling more than eight months of refining the techniques necessary to produce an accurate image of DNA. In 1952, Dr. Franklin suspended a tiny DNA fiber (as thin as a strand of hair) in a carefully controlled environment, and bombarded it with an X-ray beam for 100 hours. The rays were diffracted by the electrons in the DNA atoms, which produced a pattern on a photographic plate. Known as Photo 51, that famous image provided critical evidence of the helical structure of DNA.
Why Don’t We Hear About Her?
Without her knowledge or permission, competing scientists Watson and Crick used Photo 51 as the basis for their own model of DNA. In 1962 (four years after Dr. Franklin’s death), Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, received a Nobel Prize for the discovery and description of the structure of DNA. Dr. Franklin’s instrumental and illuminating work was barely credited.
Dr. Franklin went on to do pioneering work on plant viruses, and by the mid-1950s was at the top of her field. She was frequently invited to speak at scientific conferences, and was often the only woman presenter. Despite dealing with discrimination throughout her career, Dr. Franklin was a champion of science. She said, “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
Dr. Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1956. In 2004, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science became the first medical institution in the United States to be named for a female scientist. Photo 51 is the university’s logo.