BORN 25th July 1920, Notting Hill, London, England
DIED 16th April 1958, Royal Marsden Hospital, Chelsea, London, England
WORKED Cambridge University; British Coal Utilisation Research Association in Kingston-upon-Thames, London; Laboratoire Central des Services Chemique de l’État in Paris; Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit, King’s College London; Birkbeck College, London
HONOURS Sadly Rosalind died at the early age of only 37, from ovarian cancer, and so did not receive the official recognition and awards that her work in all three areas to which she contributed – coal and graphite, DNA, and virus structure – would undoubtedly have attracted.
Entry by Brian Sutton, Professor of Molecular Biophysics, King’s College London
Rosalind enjoyed the theatre and art, but her real passion outside of science was for the outdoors, hiking and especially the mountains.
Rosalind in an Alpine hut (photograph by Vittorio Luzzati)
Rosalind was not musical, to the disappointment of the director of music at her school, a certain Gustav Holst!
In January of 2015 a group of four composers, four scientists and four singers met together at Kings College London in a series of workshops and performance events to create a set of variations on the theme of Rosalind Franklin. The scientists were from a variety of disciplines – Psychology, Renal Sciences, Human Genetics and Theoretical Physics.
“Electric Voice Theatre’s wonderfully manicured sound, ultra-clear enunciation of the texts…and marvellously dramatic delivery of texts and music are wholly winning…the myriad styles and resonances in the music are delivered with aplomb…required listening for oh, so many reasons!” (Gramophone)
Extracts from a performance at Warwick University, 2016
Rosalind attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, studying Physics, Chemistry and Pure and Applied Mathematics in her final years. She won a place to study Natural Sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, specialising in Chemistry in her final year.
After studying Natural Sciences (Chemistry) at Cambridge University and undertaking a short research project there, she worked for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association in Kingston-upon-Thames, London; her work there led to the award of her PhD in 1945.
She studied the structure of different types of coal; this was during the Second World War and this knowledge was important for the war effort.
In 1947 she moved to the Laboratoire Central des Services Chemique de l’État in Paris, to work on physical chemical and X-ray studies of coals and graphite.
X-ray crystallography is a technique used to elucidate the molecular structure of materials, from inorganic minerals to biological specimens. Rosalind became an expert in using X-ray crystallography first to look at carbon and graphite in coals, but then, more famously, to study the structure of DNA and viruses.
In 1951 she moved to King’s College London, to join the Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit to study DNA by X-ray diffraction analysis.
In 1953 she moved to Birkbeck College, London, for X-ray diffraction studies of tobacco mosaic virus.
Rosalind in the laboratory
Rosalind’s X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA at King’s College London made a key contribution to the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, arguably the greatest discovery in biology of the 20th century, and one of the greatest of all time, with ramifications for life today from medicine to anthropology to forensic science. The structure led immediately to an understanding of the mechanism of heredity, and later to the way in which information is stored in the DNA molecule, the nature of the gene and the molecular basis of many diseases. At the time, it was not generally agreed that DNA was the genetic material, although the Unit at King’s including Maurice Wilkins, led by John Randall, and both James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, believed that it was; they believed that determining the three-dimensional structure of DNA would reveal the molecular basis of life – and it did!
The structure of double-helical DNA wound around a core of helical proteins, as occurs in chromosomes, determined by X-ray crystallography
Rosalind’s X-ray diffraction studies of tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) at Birkbeck College, together with Aaron Klug and others, led to an understanding of the molecular structure of this virus and the way in which the genetic material is encapsulated within the helical protein structure. This was the first detailed structure for any virus and opened up a whole new field. TMV is a plant virus, but X-ray crystallography is still being applied today to understanding virus structures and their mechanisms of action, particularly those pathogenic to humans, enabling the design of approaches such as vaccines and antibodies to combat them.
The molecular structure of polio virus determined by X-ray crystallography.
Did You Know?
The most famous of Rosalind’s X-ray diffraction photographs, taken whilst working with her PhD student Raymond Gosling, is known somewhat enigmatically as “Photograph 51”. One of a series of photographs, it was taken in May 1952 and shows, by its X-shaped pattern, clear evidence for a helical structure.
X-ray diffraction image of DNA (courtesy King’s College London Archive)
It was this photograph, seen in early 1953 by James Watson, that led Watson and Crick to build their model of the double helix. The model structure of DNA was published in the journal Nature in April 1953, alongside a paper by Franklin and Gosling showing Photograph 51 and other information that confirmed the structure, and a third paper from Wilkins and others.
However, Rosalind never knew that James Watson had seen Photograph 51 before building their model, nor that he and Francis Crick had also been given access to other key elements of her data; in their paper they do not appropriately acknowledge this fact.
Rosalind, Crick and Watson in a drawing by Quentin Blake
Poignantly, in a draft manuscript dated 17th March 1953, one day before news of the double helix model in Cambridge reached King’s, Rosalind describes a double-helical structure, with the two coaxial chains off-set from each other in exactly the way presented by Watson and Crick. She was so close to the answer!
Given the association today between Rosalind’s name and DNA, it may appear surprising that the inscription on her gravestone reads:
“Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind”
Whilst true, this omission of DNA reflects the fact that Rosalind spent only two years of her life working on DNA, had established an international reputation in other fields too, and the profound and wide-reaching significance of understanding the structure of DNA had yet to be fully realised.
After a finishing a term in Cambridge, she wanted her bicycle at home for the vacation, so she simply rode it to London, a ride of more than 50 miles!
Plaque at King’s College London, Strand Campus, commemorating those involved in the X-ray studies of DNA
An Inspiring Woman
Rosalind was an exceptional experimentalist who inspired those around her through her attention to detail, uncompromising approach and above all her dedication to science. In one of her early letters home she wrote:
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated”
In his obituary for Rosalind, J.D. Bernal, Head of the Department at Birkbeck College, wrote:
“As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. …[She] inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standard” (Nature, July 19th 1958).
Nevertheless, the “Miss Franklin” rather than “Dr. Franklin” is a reminder of the regard afforded to women scientists at that time, and the patronising and negative treatment of Rosalind and her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA in Watson’s book, “The Double Helix” (1968), led many to feel the need to put the record straight.
Anne Sayre took up her cause in her book “Rosalind Franklin and DNA” (1975), but Rosalind’s sister Jenifer Glynn in her biography “My Sister Rosalind Franklin” (2012) writes that
“…she was never a feminist – she would have thought of herself simply as a scientist whose achievements should be judged on their own terms, not as ‘woman scientist’ striking a blow for the rights of women”
Fortunately her achievements are now well recognised in their own right, in part through the superb biography by Brenda Maddox, “Rosalind Franklin, the Dark Lady of DNA” (2002), and serve as an inspiration to women and men alike.
Buildings at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Newnham College, Cambridge, and at King’s College London, as well as countless others nationwide and worldwide, have been named after her.
Her story inspired Anna Ziegler to write the play “Photograph 51”, which was performed at the Noël Coward Theatre, London in 2015, with Nicole Kidman playing Rosalind.
In 2019, following a public call for suggestions, it was agreed that the Mars rover to be launched in 2020 – the centenary of her birth – to search for evidence of life on Mars, will bear her name. It could not be more appropriate that the search for extra-terrestrial life should be associated with the name of one who made such a vital contribution to the discovery of the molecular basis of life on Earth.