Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who uncovered the structure of coal, viruses, and most famously the double helix structure of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximeno Lopez and words by Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

Rosalind Franklin’s (1920- 1958) name is now synonymous with the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. However, we often forget that she made significant discoveries in describing the structure of coal, graphite, and viruses. The irony is that she was very well known for her research on coal and viruses in her lifetime, while her contribution to DNA structure was only recognized posthumously.

Perhaps, if her life was not cut short due to cancer, Rosalind’s story would have been written very differently. Her early demise at the age of 37 robbed her of the true accolades she deserved. But in telling her story we celebrate this outstanding lady who had a brilliant mind, working in an exciting era of biological discovery. Rosalind worked on different topics throughout her life, each at different research institutions, and each one worthy to be showcased and applauded.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin. (Image source: FRKN/6/1 — Articles and Obituaries. Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Early Life

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in 1920 into an influential and affluent British Jewish family who resided in the cosmopolitan district of Notting Hill in London. She was the second of five children and the eldest daughter of Ellis Arthur Franklin, a merchant banker and teacher, and Muriel Frances Waley.

Rosalind Franklin (second from right), with her four siblings.(Image source: NIH. NLM Unique ID:101584586X128)

A bright child whose brilliance impressed everybody around her, she started showing an early interest in science and math. However, women were still not being provided equal education in the beginning of the 20th century. There were few schools imparting science education to girls, and the St. Paul’s School for Girls in west London being one of them. Rosalind joined St. Paul’s at age 11, where in addition to studying physics and chemistry, she learnt German, Latin, French, and also excelled in sports. The school trained its pupils to have a career and not just prepare them for marriage. Rosalind was always a determined child knowing what she wanted in life, and she knew that she would be pursuing higher education as the next step.

After finishing school in 1938, Rosalind joined Newnham College of the acclaimed Cambridge University for an undergrad in Physical Chemistry. The ongoing World War II influenced her college life, when German forces were bombing British cities, her safety was at risk, but she refused to move away from Cambridge and continued her studies. The war also brought academic refugees like Adrienne Weill to Cambridge. Adrienne was a Ph.D. student of Marie Curie in France, and Rosalind became friends with her. Women were not awarded the B.S. or M.S. degrees in universities, a rule that was later reversed by the Cambridge University. As a result, despite finishing her degree in 1941, Rosalind was awarded her B.A. in 1947.

Coal and Carbon- @ BCURA and France

Rosalind with the staff of British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA) in 1945. (Image source: Harris & Suarez-Martinez, Carbon, 2021)

After her undergrad Rosalind wanted to pursue Ph.D. and joined the lab of Roland Norrish in Cambridge University. She and Norrish did not get along well, and when an opportunity arose at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA) she immediately took it. When she started in 1941, she was one of the few women scientists employed by BCURA. This was her way of contributing to the war effort, as coal was utilized in gas masks for its highly adsorptive nature. Rosalind made important observations into the porosity and density of coal, and her papers are even cited today. She worked at BCURA for four years, publishing five papers, and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1945.

By the end of her Ph.D. the war had ended, and Rosalind wanted to move abroad for further research. Her destination of choice was Paris, which she had liked a lot while visiting as a child. With the help of Adrienne, her French friend from college, she was able to find a position at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris.

Rosalind (extreme left) with her colleagues in Paris (Image source: Harris & Suarez-Martinez, Carbon, 2021).

She joined the lab of Jacques Mering, who was a pioneer in X-ray diffraction, a technique that measures the diffraction angles and intensities of X-rays to estimate the molecular structure of a crystal. Rosalind applied X-ray diffraction to study the fine structure of coal. This led to her most important contribution to carbon research — distinguishing between graphitizing and non-graphitizing types of Carbon, based on the difference in arrangement of carbon molecules within the material. She enjoyed the life style and collegiate atmosphere in France, and had stated that they were the happiest years of her life.

DNA double helix- @ King’s College London

Rosalind wanted to move back to London, to be closer to home. After receiving a fellowship she joined King’s College London in 1951. This was her foray into biological chemistry as she was starting work on the nucleic acid DNA. Unfortunately though she had an unpleasant start, as there was some confusion over who would lead the x-ray crystallography research at King’s College, she or Maurice Wilkins.

‘Photo 51’- the x-ray diffraction image taken by Franklin and Gosling in 1952 which demonstrated double helix structure of DNA (Image source: Wikipedia)

Wilkins was already working on DNA samples when Rosalind joined, and they were supposed to collaborate. But their opposing temperaments only made matters worse. Rosalind had an outspoken dominating personality, while Wilkins was reserved and shy, resulting in a lack of communication and eventual parting of ways. Rosalind kept working with her graduate student Raymond Gosling, and together they generated an x-ray diffraction image of DNA, known as ‘Photo 51’ that demonstrated that DNA had a double helix structure.

Rosalind’s lab notebook where she discovers the double helix structure of DNA. (Image source: FRKN/1/4 — Reports and Working Notes on DNA. Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0))

But she was not the only one working on the DNA structure. Watson and Crick from the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University were also working to understand the structure of DNA. They were struggling to come up with a model, until Wilkins showed them ‘Photo 51’, without Rosalind’s knowledge. The image explained their data and they published the DNA structure in 1953 in the journal Nature. Rosalind and Gosling also published their model in the same 1953 issue of Nature, however their paper was received after that of Watson and Crick’s.

Her stay at King’s College was relatively short, lasting for just two years. But she made an indelible mark on the history of science, opening the floodgates for molecular biology discoveries.

Virus research- @ Birkbeck College

Rosalind joined the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College in 1953, and despite the poor infrastructure at Birkbeck, she was happy to leave King’s College behind. Here she embarked upon a journey in Virology. The physicist and crystallographer J.D. Bernal hired her and gave her own research team.

Using x-ray crystallography she worked on the RNA virus, Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), and also the turnip yellow mosaic virus, and poliovirus. Notably, through analysis of diffraction patterns she demonstrated that the RNA is embedded inside the protein coat of TMV. She collaborated with many colleagues at Birkbeck, including Aaron Klug, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1963. During this time she traveled the world for attending conferences and presenting her work on coal and virus structure. She was thriving as a scientist in this phase, but it did not last long.

Everlasting legacy on science and society

Rosalind was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956, and her last two years were spent in surgery, treatment and convalescence with friends and family. Yet she kept working till the very end, trying to get grants for her research group and publishing seven papers in 1957. She passed away in 1958 at the young age of 37. It was a shocking loss for the science community, and J.D. Bernal praised her work in the following words-

“distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”- Obituary by John D. Bernal.

There’s no denying that her early death robbed her of the awards she deserved. Her work led to two Nobel Prize winning researches (to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for Physiology and Medicine in 1962, and to Aaron Klug for Chemistry in 1982), but as the Nobel Committee traditionally did not give posthumous awards, she was left out from both (the rule to not give posthumous awards was made in 1976).

Many articles have been written since her death to set the record straight for attributing the right credit for her discoveries in DNA and to highlight the plight of women sidelined by men. She might have been a victim of her circumstances, but she would not have seen herself as one. Rosalind was just a compelling, competitive, non-compromising scientist who made a mark in a male dominated field. Therefore, society should always remember her as an icon for women in science who have forged their path through steely determination and professional excellence.


1920- Born on 25th July in Notting Hill, London, to Ellis Arthur Franklin and Muriel Frances Waley

1938- Passed high school from the St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, London, with six distinctions

1941- Graduated with B.S. from Newnham College of Cambridge University

1942- 1946- Worked at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA) for her Ph.D. thesis

1945- Finished Ph.D., although was awarded the degree in 1948 from Cambridge University

1946- 1951- Worked at Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat, Paris

1951- Joined King’s College London to work on DNA

1953- Moved to Birkbeck College and started working on viruses

1958- Passed away due to complication from ovarian cancer on 16th April in London

Further Readings:

About the author:


Content Editor,Women In Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories.

Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.

About the artist:


Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

About the series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

— Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

A home for all our passion projects at Sci-Illustrate. A place where we invite you into our journey through art, science, and everything in between.

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