Rediscover STEAM
Published in

Rediscover STEAM

Rosalind Franklin, Chemist Who Discovered The Structure of DNA

Born in 1920 in Notting Hill, London, Rosalind Franklin expressed a passion for the sciences from a young age. She exhibited great intelligence in her schooling at St. Paul’s University for Girls, a prestigious school known for its preparatory courses for college. When she was 15, Franklin knew she wanted to become a scientist and signed up for classes to fulfil her passion. Although she could have spent 1–2 more years preparing for college at St. Paul’s, Franklin graduated early to earn her Ph.D. to contribute to the scientific community as soon as possible.

At the age of 18, Franklin was accepted into Cambridge University, one of the most distinguished universities in the United Kingdom, where she studied chemistry. Franklin’s exceptional intelligence and dedication earned her the Second Class Honors in 1941, an award that granted her employment. From there, Franklin worked at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association to enhance her research expertise. The experience that she gained working for this company provided her the foundation for her thesis in 1945, titled “The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids With Special Reference to Coal.”

However, Franklin discovered her true passion for science when introduced to cryptology in 1946, working at a laboratory in Paris with esteemed scientist Jacques Mering. Mering introduced her to X-ray diffraction, an important technique that played a vital role in her contribution to the study of genetics. After spending five years in Paris, she returned to London and accepted a job as a research associate at King’s College in 1951. During this time, great discoveries were made in the molecular biology field — discovering how DNA, not RNA, is the real genetic material and Chargaff’s Rules — that initiated the race to find the structure of DNA.

Franklin was one of the many contestants in this race and was assigned to work in a team consisting of Maurice Wilkins, Ray Gosling, Alex Stokes, and Herbert Wilsons, all scientists at King’s College. Because Franklin was the only female in this group, she was the victim of sexism, which led to a lack of communication. Additionally, Franklin and Wilkins had contrasting personalities, which led to a relationship full of dishonesty and distrust. Despite the hostile work environment, Franklin successfully used her skills in Crystallology to produce one of the most well-known images to the scientific community: Photograph 51. This photo displayed DNA as a double spiral figure, a discovery that the other contestants had not anticipated.

Photograph 51

During this time, James Watson and Francis Crick were also contenders in this race and determined to win by whatever means necessary. They tricked Maurice Wilkins into a dinner party, where he ended up complaining about Franklin’s behaviour and presenting Photograph 51 without her consent. This picture changed Watson and Crick’s approach to figuring out the structure of DNA, and because of Franklin’s discovery, they were successfully able to build the correct DNA model. Watson and Crick soon presented their findings and were named the “Fathers of DNA.” This duo, along with Wilkins, received the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Unfortunately, Franklin was never given any credit for her discovery during her lifetime, and it is believed that because of her work with X-rays, she contracted cancer, which ultimately led to her passing in 1958 at the young age of 37. Franklin deserved to earn the Nobel Prize, and it was wrongly stolen from her. Although Watson and Crick ultimately created the model of DNA’s structure, it is crucial to see that without Franklin’s contribution, Watson and Crick would have never been able to accomplish this feat. Although Wilkins did not discover the photograph, nor was he involved with Watson and Crick in their journey, he was still awarded for his extensive molecular biology work. Additionally, Franklin passed away four years before the Nobel Prize was given, and according to the rules for receiving the Nobel Prize, the committee does not consider “posthumous candidates.” However, the most despicable part is that Franklin was not even given any credit by Watson, Crick, or Wilkins because of their blatant sexism.

The misconception that Watson and Crick were the founders of the DNA model is still perpetuated today. Do not forget Franklin: the woman who discovered DNA’s structure, the woman who fought against prejudice and sexism, and the woman who taught us to persevere no matter how tough the road. Although Franklin was not awarded her due credit during her lifetime, let’s credit her today and make sure that her legacy is known to the generations to come!

by Bani Kaur

References

“Rosalind Franklin.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 June 2020, www.biography.com/scientist/rosalind-franklin#:~:text=Franklin%20enrolled%20at%20Newnham%20College,in%20the%20qualifications%20for%20employment.

Lee, Jane J. “6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism.” National Geographic News, 19 May 2013, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/5/130519-women-scientists-overlooked-dna-history-science/.

“Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/rosalind-franklin-a-crucial-contribution-6538012/

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store