Rosalind Elsie Franklin (July 25th 1920- 16th April 1958) was an English chemist and X-Ray Crystallographer whose works made contribution to the understanding of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite. Franklin is most appreciated for her work on X-Ray diffraction images of DNA, which lead to the discovery of the DNA double helix.
Franklin began education at a private day school at Norland Place in West London, Lindores School for Young Ladies in Sussex, and St Paul’s Girls’ School. Then she studied the Natural Sciences Tripos at Newnham College, Cambridge, from where she graduated in 1941. Earning a research fellowship, she joined the University of Cambridge physical chemistry laboratory under Ronald George Wreyford Norrish, who disappointed her for his lack of enthusiasm. Thankfully, the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) offered her a research position in 1942, and started her work on coals. This helped her earn a PhD in 1945. She went to Paris in 1947 as a chertier (post-doctoral researcher) under Jacques Miring at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chiriquí’s de l’Etat, from whom she became an accomplished X-ray crystallographer. She became a research associate at King’s College London, in 1951, but was convinced to move to Birkbeck College only after two years, due to a disagreement with director John Randall, and with her colleague Maurice Wilkins.
Sodium deoxyribose nucleate from calf thymus, Structure B, Photo 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin and R G Gosling, 2 May 1952, with Linus Pauling’s holographic annotations to the right of the photo.
While stationed at King’s College in London, Franklin began work on the X-ray diffraction of DNA, nicknamed Photo 51. Her images confirmed the helical structure of DNA. Unpublished drafts of her papers, display that she had independently determined the overall-B form of the DNA helix, as well as the location of the phosphate groups on the outside of the structure. Franklin’s worked convinced Francis Crik, and James Watson, fellow researchers that backbones had to be on the outside, thereby changing the models of DNA that they had individually created. Franklin’s work was publishes in the third series of three DNA Nature articles, which hinted only faintly of her contribution later. Crick, Watson, and Franklin’s colleague shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1652. Decades later all of them have suggested that ideally Franklin was deserving of a prize too.
After finishing her portion of the work on DNA, with her own research team at Birkbeck College, Franklin led groundbreaking research on the molecular structures of viruses, including tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus.
Franklin died in 1958 at the age of 37, due to ovarian cancer.
Continuing her research, her team member, and later her beneficiary Aaron Klug went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.