Franklin, Rosalind (1920 - 1958)

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Franklin, Rosalind (1920 - 1958)

Franklin was a Londoner by birth. After graduating from Cambridge

University, she joined the staff of the British Coal Utilisation

Research Association in 1942, moving in 1947 to the Laboratoire

Centrale des Services Chimique de L'Etat in Paris. She returned to

England in 1950 and held research appointments at London University,

initially at King's College from 1951 to 1953 and thereafter at

Birkbeck College until her untimely death from cancer at the age of


Franklin played a major part in the discovery of the structure of DNA

by James Watson and Francis Crick. With the unflattering and distorted

picture presented by Watson in his The Double Helix (1968) her role in

this has become somewhat controversial. At King's, she had been

recruited to work on biological molecules and her director, John

Randall, had specifically instructed her to work on the structure of

DNA. When she later learned that Maurice Wilkins, a colleague at

King's, also intended to work on DNA, she felt unable to cooperate

with him. Nor did she feel much respect for the early attempts of

Watson and Crick in Cambridge to establish the structure.

The causes of friction were various ranging from simple personality

clashes to, it has been said, male hostility to the invasion of their

private club by a woman. Despite this unsatisfactory background

Franklin did obtain results without which the structure established by

Watson and Crick would have been at the least delayed. The most

important of these was her x-ray photograph of hydrated DNA, the

so-called B form, the most revealing such photograph then available.

Watson fir...

... middle of paper ...

...anklin's showing an image of the now famous Photo 51.

Franklin, went on to study the tobacco mosaic virus, and continued her

work in absolute dedication, despite having been diagnosed with cancer

in 1956 (probably due to the chemicals she was using). She died two

years later, 37 years old, never knowing how much her work had played

a role in Watson and Crick's discovery. In 1963 they received the

Nobel prize for their discovery, along with Wilkins, Franklin's

collaborator. In 1968 Watson's popular book, The Double Helix,

recounted the events leading to their ultimate discovery, making clear

for the first time how critical Franklin's experimental work had been.

Franklin's social isolation prompted by the contempt male scientists

showed toward her as a woman-scientist, is one of the tragedies in the

history of science.
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