During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: July 25, 1920, London, U.K.
Died: April 16, 1958, London, U.K.
Known best for: Making a crucial contribution to the discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure
British chemist Rosalind Franklin played a crucial role in the early understanding of DNA, but did not receive the same credit as male scientists working to make similar discoveries. She was born in London in 1920 to an affluent Jewish family, and took her education seriously from a young age.
Franklin enrolled at Newnham College in 1938 where she studied chemistry. She was awarded Second Class Honors in her finals. At the time, these criteria served as a bachelor’s degree and qualification for employment. She went on to work at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association as an assistant research officer. She studied the porosity of coal which led to research she conducted for her Ph.D. thesis, “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal.”
In 1946, Franklin was appointed to work at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris where she would learn skills that would ultimately lead to her discovery of DNA’s structure. She worked alongside crystallographer Jacques Mering. Crystallography is the branch of science concerning the structures of crystals. He taught her X-ray diffraction, a practice that involves beaming x-rays into crystal structures to determine their structure. The method would soon prove crucial in Franklin’s study of DNA.
Franklin also pioneered the use of X-rays to created images of crystalized solids to help analyze more complex matter aside from single crystals.
In 1951, she started working as a research associate at King’s College London in the biophysics unit. Research director John Randall used Franklin’s expertise in X-ray diffraction and applied it to DNA fibers. Using this technique, Franklin and her student at the time, Raymond Gosling discovered two forms of DNA — an “A” and “B” form — using X-ray diffraction.
A photograph of the “B” form of DNA became known as Photograph 51 and served as evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. Franklin captured the image using a machine she had refined herself.
In 1953, one of Franklin’s colleagues, Maurice Wilkins, disclosed Franklin’s Photograph 51 to scientist James Watson and his partner Francis Crick, who were working on their own DNA model at the time. He shared the image without Franklin’s knowledge or permission. Crick and Watson used Franklin’s photograph to inform their famous model of DNA. This early model earned them a Nobel Prize in 1962. Crick and Watson published their findings in Nature magazine in 1953. In a brief footnote, the article mentioned that Crick and Watson were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Franklin’s and Wilkins’s unpublished photograph. In reality, much of Crick and Watson’s findings were based on Franklin’s. Articles by Franklin and Watson were also published in the magazine but appeared only to be backing up Crick and Watson’s findings — not leading to them.
Franklin left King’s College in 1953 and went on to work at Birkbeck College to study the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus — a virus that infects a wide range of plants including tobacco — and RNA. She ultimately published 17 papers on viruses, leading to a greater understanding of their structures.
Franklin was only 37 years old when she died of ovarian cancer in 1958.
In 2002, biographer Brenda Maddox outlined Franklin’s life and contributions in a book called “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.”