Born London England, July 25, 1920 died April 16, 1958 C.E. Rosalind Elise Franklin was a physical scientist whose pioneering but largely uncredited work in X-ray crystallography led directly to the discovery of the structure of DNA
. A controversial figure, she perhaps would have been credited with the discovery herself had her unpublished research not been shown, without her knowledge or consent, to the now famous James Watson
and Francis Crick
In her early years Franklin excelled at science (she had the good fortune to attend St. Paul's Girls' School, one of the few girls’ schools that taught physics and chemistry) and decided at age 15 to devote her life to it. Her father, a wealthy Jewish man, was against higher education for women but after the intercession of several family members on Rosalind’s behalf, he ultimately relented. In 1938 Franklin was enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, graduating in 1941. She gave up her graduate fellowship at Cambridge after one year to take a position as a physical chemist at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. While there she conducted fundamental research on coal, carbon, and graphite microstructures, with the aim of increasing the efficiency of their usage. This research became the subject of her doctorate which she earned from Cambridge University in 1945. By the age of 26 she had published five papers on the subject, many of which are still quoted today, and helped launch the field of high strength carbon fibers. In 1947, after obtaining her Ph.D. she went to Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L'Etat, where she spent 3 years learning and refining the technique of X-Ray diffraction while working closely with crystallographer Jacques Mering.
In 1950 she returned to England as a research associate at King's College, Cambridge. Here she was given responsibility for the study of DNA, applying her X-Ray diffraction techniques to help uncover its structure. However soon after starting her work, Maurice Wilkins a senior researcher at the lab who had also been engaged in the study of DNA, returned from vacation. He assumed, and treated, Franklin as though she were a technical assistant rather than the peer that she was.
Despite this Franklin's research made steady progress. She extracted finer strands of DNA than ever before, she was the first to state that the sugar phosphate backbone lies on the outside of the DNA molecule, and she adjusted her equipment to produce extremely fine beams of x-rays thus rendering the highest resolution pictures of DNA ever created.
It was these unpublished pictures which Wilkins furnished to American biochemist James Watson and British biochemist Francis Crick without Franklin's knowledge. Upon seeing the pictures Watson and Crick quickly arrived at the solution and immediately published their findings in the March 1953 issue of Nature. Franklin's work appeared in the same issue as a supporting article.
Disheartened by the sexist policies at Cambridge, such as women not being allowed to dine in the dining rooms or pubs, and her strained relationship with Wilkins, Franklin left Cambridge in 1953 and moved to J. D. Bernal's lab at Birkbeck College in London where she headed her own research group. During her 5 year tenure there she studied tobacco mosaic and polio viruses publishing 17 papers on the subject. Her work laid the foundation for structural virology.
In 1956 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which despite three surgeries and experimental chemotherapy resulted in her death in 1958. She continued her research until only a few weeks before her death at age 37.
Watson, Crick, and Wilkins each received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962. As Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously Franklin never received the recognition her efforts deserved.