The DNA of Genius
Rosalind Franklin, unsung hero of molecular biology
Born in 1920, Rosalind Franklin knew from an early age that she wanted to be a scientist. She attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, one of the few educational institutions that instructed young women in the physical sciences. Then she studied physical chemistry at Cambridge and completed her undergraduate coursework in 1941. For this accomplishment, she received a “titular degree,” since at that time full degrees were conferred only on men. Four years later, she finished her doctorate at Cambridge as well.
After World War II ended, Franklin used a new technology—x-ray diffraction—to study the structure of coal and other carbons in Paris, where she indulged her passion for French culture and hiking in the Alps. To further her career, she returned to London in 1951 and began studying the structure of DNA at the biophysics unit of King’s College. There she encountered adversity again, this time in the form of a would-be collaborator, Maurice Wilkins.
Franklin’s research and x-ray photographs contained groundbreaking clues to the structure of DNA. Without her knowledge, Wilkins shared the information with James Watson and Francis Crick, who recognized the double-helix configuration and rushed to publish the discovery in April 1953, without attributing Franklin. Her findings appeared as a supporting article in the same issue of Nature, but the damage was done. Although her x-ray photographs—particularly number 51—were eventually hailed for their critical role in the DNA breakthrough, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery.
Franklin moved to Birkbeck College in March 1953; there, she headed a research group and shifted her focus to viruses, making several significant discoveries regarding the structure of RNA and contributing greatly to the field of structural virology. Sadly, Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. While she did not receive due recognition during her lifetime, experts today acknowledge her crucial role in mapping DNA. In 2004, the Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School changed its name to the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science to honor her achievements and commemorate her place in scientific history.