Rosalind Franklin First Photographed DNA's Double Helix


Sexism and even theft sometimes played roles in the crediting of various scientific discoveries throughout history. Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant woman who lived during the 1900’s, and her work with DNA is a perfect example of this.

Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, in London, England to a well-known Jewish family. She went to St. Paul's Girls' School, an institution known for its academics and science education for women, specifically. Although Franklin’s father did not want her to be a scientist, she eventually attended Newnham College in Cambridge, where she studied chemistry.

Post-college, employed by the British Coal Utilization Research Center (CURA), Franklin mostly worked alone, which she liked. In 1945, she earned her Ph.D. at Cambridge. Later, she learned about X-ray diffraction while working as a chercheur, or researcher, in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de I'Etate in Paris. Returning to London following her time in Paris, Franklin did research at King's College.

Franklin used her new knowledge about X-ray diffraction to repair and improve the X-ray crystallography unit at King’s College. With the unit, she took two photos of crystallized DNA, the first of a dry DNA fiber and the second of a wet one. The wet DNA image, which Franklin labeled “Photo 51”, revealed that DNA has a double helix form. She presented this information, new to the world at the time, during a lecture at King's College. However, Franklin then turned her attention to the dry DNA because she thought this would produce higher-quality images.

In 1953, Franklin moved to Birkbeck College. At this time, Maurice Wilkins, another researcher also working with the crystallography unit, somehow found Photo 51. Recognizing the double helix for what it was, Wilkins promptly stole the intellectual property and showed it to his colleagues James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson and Crick, excited by “their” discovery, wrote an article about the double helix in the science journal Nature. Their article completely diminished Wilkins’ and Franklin's work.

Never credited for her discovery during her lifetime, Franklin died from ovarian cancer on April 16, 1958. Four years later, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Franklin was hardly mentioned. Only recently has the world widely recognized how important her research truly was.

Rosalind Franklin was a well-educated woman who achieved meaningful work in the sciences. Credited with a variety of other scientific achievements while she was alive, she was robbed of what became her greatest one–the structure and shape of DNA. Unfortunately, people cannot receive a Nobel Prize after their deaths. Yet, we can honor Franklin today by bringing awareness to her hard work and bright mind.

[Sources: LiveScience; dnaftb.org]

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