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Franklin, Rosalind (1920–1958)

Franklin, Rosalind (1920–1958)

English chemist and molecular biologist who played a central role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Born Rosalind Franklin in London, England, on July 25, 1920; died in London on April 16, 1958; daughter of Muriel (Waleys) Franklin and Ellis Franklin; graduated from St. Paul's Girls' School (1938); enrolled Newnham College, Cambridge University (1938); graduated from Cambridge University (1941); never married; no children.

Stayed on at Cambridge after graduation as researcher; joined the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA, 1942); awarded Ph.D., Cambridge University (1945); hired by the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de État, Paris (1947); awarded Turner Newall Fellowship (1951); joined King's College Medical Research Council Biophysics Unit, London (1951); moved to Birkbeck College, London (1953); Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins awarded Noble Prize in Medicine and Physiology (1962).


"A Note on the True Density of Chemical Composition and Structure of Coal and Carbonized Coals," in Fuel (1948); "The Interpretation of Diffuse X-Ray Diagrams in Carbon," in Acta Crystallographica (1950); "The Structure of Graphite Carbons," in Acta Crystallographica (1950); "Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate," in Nature (1953); "Evidence for 2-Chain Helix in Crystalline Structure of Sodium Deoxyribonucleate," in Nature (1953); "Structure of Tobacco Mosaic Virus," in Nature (1955); "X-ray Diffraction Studies of the Structure of the Protein in Tobacco Mosaic Virus," in Symposium on Protein Structure (1957).

Born in London, England, into a family of wealthy merchant bankers on July 25, 1920, Rosalind Franklin experienced a progressive upbringing. The second child and first daughter, she was encouraged by her parents to cultivate her own interests, rather than conform to the rigid model of feminine behavior that the era imposed. When her father brought home a carpenter's workbench so that his children might learn practical skills, Rosalind took up woodworking along with her brothers. Her inclination towards the practical aspects of science were evident in later life, when she was often seen in the workshops of the British Coal Utilization Research Association.

Her father Ellis Franklin was a noted educator and vice-principal of the Working's Men's College, founded by Frederick Denison Maurice in 1854. Her mother Muriel Waleys Franklin was involved in the socialist movement. From an early age, Rosalind showed herself to be strong-willed and complex. Writes Muriel:

Rosalind felt passionately about many things, and on occasion she could be tempestuous. Her affections both in childhood, and in later life, were deep and strong and lasting, but she could never be demonstrative, or readily express her feelings in words. This combination of strong feeling, sensibility, and emotional reserve, often complicated by intense concentration on the matter of the moment … could provoke either stony silence or a storm. But when she was a child, frustration tended to produce vehement protest, with sudden angry tears.… These storms were as a rule quickly over, even if sometimes too easily provoked. But the strong will, and tempestuousness of temper, remained characteristic all her life.

At St. Paul's Girls' School, Rosalind Franklin received a privileged education. St. Paul's offered courses in physics and chemistry which were on a par with the finest boys' schools in England. It was here that Franklin first discovered her love for the sciences; by the age of 15, she had already decided that this would become her profession. At St. Paul's, she also took courses in French.

Career opportunities in the sciences were extremely limited for women prior to the Second World War. While not wholly dismissive of his daughter's interests, Ellis Franklin was nonetheless concerned about her future prospects. He suggested that she become involved in social causes. Although by no means blind to the injustices of the world, Rosalind showed no strong inclination to follow her father's advice.

In 1938, she entered Cambridge University. However, as Virginia Woolf remarked a year later in the Three Guineas:

At Cambridge in the year 1939, the women's colleges … are not allowed to be members of the university; and the number of educated men's daughters who are allowed to receive a university education is still strictly limited.… The total number of students at recognized institutions for the higher education of women [is not allowed to] exceed five hundred, [though] the number of male students who were resident at Cambridge in 1935 was 5,328.

At that time, women's colleges at Cambridge offered only "titular" degrees. This practice excluded the degree holder from university government, and meant that women were unable to influence university policy. Neither Cambridge nor Oxford, both institutions with historic connections to the Church of England and the British government, were prepared to accept women within their hallowed walls.

This was the atmosphere in which Franklin found herself as an undergraduate. Many of her fellow female students were faced with a central dilemma of university life at the time—the choice between marriage or the career for which they had been trained. Women were not allowed to hold an academic post and marry. Franklin's desire to pursue an academic career led to her decision not to marry. In return, she hoped to be treated simply as a scientist, rather than as a woman, though she was a dark-haired, if unconventional, beauty.

In the Cavendish Laboratory, possibly the best in England, Rosalind Franklin received her undergraduate training. Wartime conditions at Cambridge dictated that students be more independent, and these conditions suited Franklin's temperament ideally. She excelled in physical chemistry and wrote to a friend that she was spending "8¼ hours a day in the lab." The diligence with which Franklin pursued her academic career had its price. In her final year at Cambridge, she wore herself out with a self-imposed workload that far exceeded that of her classmates. As a result, she did not receive a first-class degree and settled instead for a high second. Nevertheless, she received a research fellowship to Newnham College and went on to study gas-phase chromatography under Professor Ronald Norrish.

Franklin was passionate about research but only mildly attracted to teaching. At 22, she was appointed an assistant research officer of the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA), a body founded in 1938 to undertake research and development for the coal industry. It was during this period, while working under D.H. Bangham, that Franklin first became acquainted with crystallography and molecular biology. At an age when most young scientists are still emerging from graduate school, her research output was impressive. Between 1942 and 1946, Franklin published no less than five scientific papers, three as sole author. Her research on coal, Professor Peter Hirsch of Oxford University wrote in 1970, was "remarkable. She brought order into a field which had previously been in chaos." Franklin's work on the structure of coal is still used by scientists.

In 1945, Rosalind Franklin completed her Ph.D. thesis and was awarded a doctorate from Cambridge University. By 1946, however, she was restless and bored with her work at CURA. She wrote to Adrienne Weill, a friend from Cambridge and a fellow scientist working in Paris:

In spite of the effort to move, I am still at CURA, which is still in its usual state of crisis. I am free to leave as soon as I can find another job. If ever you hear of anybody anxious for the services of a physical chemist who knows very little about physical chemistry, but quite a lot about the holes in coal, please let me know.

Weill did not take the letter lightly. When Marcel Mathieu, in charge of the French government agency that oversaw most scientific research, came to London, Weill suggested he look Franklin up. As a result, in February 1947 Rosalind Franklin was appointed to the position of researcher at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique, or the Central Laboratory of Chemical Services, in Paris, where she found the French attitude towards women refreshing. As Canadian writer Mavis Gallant noted:

Frenchmen do not seem to resent women or be afraid of them, they are not bored by feminine company.… [T]he war between the sexes scarcely exists. Equal pay for equal work is the law of the country, and women often hold more important jobs than do women in America. A woman's intelligence is respected, her professional status accepted, and as to her personal life, the French are notorious for an indifference to others that is also a form of minding one's business.

In Paris, Franklin made friends easily. She spoke French well and eventually became completely fluent. Unlike CURA, the laboratory staff in Paris formed a closed society of equals. They lunched together, exchanged dinner invitations, picnicked on weekends, and took camping and hiking holidays together. Working with Jacques Méring, Franklin was introduced to the techniques of X-ray diffraction, a method by which X-ray beams are passed through a crystal and are recorded on film. The pattern can then be analyzed. Franklin and Méring subsequently collaborated extensively and published a series of papers on graphitizing and nongraphitizing carbons. Franklin also began to apply X-ray diffraction to biological substances.

It was the possibility of applying X-ray diffraction to such substances that attracted her back to England. In 1951, Professor J.T. Randall offered her the Turner-Newall Research Fellowship at King's College in London. She had little biological experience. "When Randall offered Rosalind a Turner-Newall Research Fellowship," writes Anne Sayre , "it was on the understanding that she would be put in charge of building up an X-ray diffraction unit within the laboratory, which at the time lacked one.… She was not brought to King's College to work upon DNA or any other specific problem."

A great deal of research had been done on DNA in England between the 1920s and the 1940s. By the early 1950s, scientists were preparing to test a central hypothesis—that DNA was a carrier of genetic information. In order to do so, the structure of DNA had to be identified. While X-ray photography had failed to yield much in the way of insight, X-ray diffraction held out greater promise. Unfortunately, King's College suffered from the same institutional intolerance towards women to which Cambridge and Oxford were prey. Originally a theological college, the male staff lunched in an exclusive dining room, while female staff members were relegated to the students' canteen. This arrangement deprived Franklin of the convivial professional atmosphere that she had been accustomed to in Paris and that was an essential medium of exchange for scientific information.

Describing her work at King's College, Franklin wrote in a report to Randall in 1950 that, "the greater part of the first eight months was taken up with the assembling of the necessary [X-ray] apparatus." Soon after, however, Franklin's research began to stray into the area of DNA X-ray diffraction analysis, as she was the only staff member qualified to undertake such work.

Maurice Wilkins was the most prominent of her colleagues at King's College. A talented physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and for the University of California, he and Franklin's research on DNA began to overlap. This caused friction between the two, which eventually verged on outright hatred. As well, Wilkins did not appreciate the presence of a female colleague. Throughout his long and distinguished career, Maurice Wilkins never supervised a female student.

In the autumn of 1951, Rosalind Franklin discovered the B form of DNA and produced a significant amount of experimental data on the subject. She divined the density of B form DNA and located the sugar-phosphate backbone of the molecule. "The highly crystalline fibre diagram given by DNA fibres is obtained only in a certain humidity range, about 70% to 80%," she noted. "The general characteristics of the diagram suggest that the DNA chains are in a helical form."

Without Franklin's knowledge, Maurice Wilkins shared much of her research with Francis Crick and James Watson, who were undertaking similar research at Cambridge. In April 1953, Crick and Watson published their findings, which conclusively identified the structure of DNA. In their 1953 article in Nature, which announced the discovery, Crick and Watson were less than forthcoming about the role Franklin played in these events: "We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results of and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King's College, London," they wrote. For their efforts, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins would be awarded the Noble Prize in 1962. Had Rosalind Franklin been alive at the time, her contribution could not have been overlooked. As her colleague Aaron Klug, a young South African, wrote: "Rosalind Franklin made crucial contributions to the solution of the structure of DNA. She discovered the B form, recognized that two states of the DNA molecule existed and defined conditions for the transition."

Unwittingly, Franklin's research contributed decisively to the understanding of DNA, but recognition of her contribution was largely obscured by personal antipathy between her and Maurice Wilkins. This lack of recognition was only deepened by a discredited and self-serving account of events published by James Watson in The Double Helix. Franklin's reaction to the discovery of the structure of DNA was one of pleasure, for she did not know how much her work had contributed to that of Crick and Watson. Had she known, her attitude would likely have been different. Because of her devotion to science, however, the solution of one problem led inexorably to the exploration of other fields.

By 1954, the atmosphere at King's College had become intolerable, and Franklin decided it was time to move on. When Birkbeck College offered her a position, she accepted. The head of research at Birkbeck, Professor J.D. Bernal, was a Marxist who believed in equality of the sexes. In a typically understated fashion, Franklin wrote: "Birkbeck is an improvement over King's, as it couldn't fail to be." At Birkbeck, Franklin applied X-ray diffraction techniques to the analysis of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, one of the most difficult viruses of the day to unravel. Her research was initially supported by the British Agricultural Research Council and later by the U.S. Department of Health.

Franklin was joined at Birkbeck by Klug, beginning a collaboration which was to last until the end of her life. Klug described Rosalind Franklin in glowing terms:

As a scientist Miss Franklin was 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.… She did nearly all this work with her own hands. At the same time she proved to be an admirable director of a research team and inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standards.

In her final years, Franklin's prominence and reputation were growing. She was asked to produce an exhibit on the structure of small viruses for the Royal Society, to present her work before the Royal Institution, and to prepare a model of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus as a central feature of the Brussels World Fair.

In the autumn of 1956, Rosalind Franklin's health began to falter. Nevertheless, she continued working, although cancer was taking its toll. In public, she bore her illness stoically, insisting that she would soon be well again. In private, her reaction was somewhat different. Her friend Mair Livingstone , a medical doctor, wrote:

She was indignant that there was not the technical skill available to avert death. She felt her mental power, and bitterly grudged its achievement being curtailed. She was saddened, but not depressed, I would say, since she remained combative to the end.

Rosalind Franklin died in London on April 16, 1958, age 37. "The importance of Franklin's work has been lost sight of," Klug noted, "partly because of her untimely death." Despite the fact that death cut short her early promise, she was a tireless scientist who produced exemplary results in whichever field she chose to apply herself. Her flexibility and her ability to assimilate new skills was extraordinary. From her work on coal structures at CURA, to her exploration of graphites with X-ray diffraction in Paris, her work on DNA, and her efforts to unravel the mysteries of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, Rosalind Franklin undertook each challenge with a determination and a professionalism that distinguished her among British scientists.

Sayre wrote that Rosalind Franklin "was, indeed, one of the world's great experimental scientists." Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that her most important contribution, her discovery and analysis of the structure of B-form DNA, has been misunderstood and obscured. Others have seemingly claimed credit for the work that she undertook, and although Franklin was not one to seek the public limelight, it nevertheless seems a pity that other scientists have deliberately pushed her into the shadows.


Gillispie, Charles C., ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. NY: Scribner, 1972.

Hamilton, L.D. "DNA: Models and Reality," in Nature. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Klug, Aaron. "Dr. Rosalind E. Franklin," in Nature. London: Macmillan, 1958.

——. "Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the Structure of DNA," in Nature. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Watson, James D. The Double Helix. Edited by Gunther S. Stent. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981.

suggested reading:

Sayre, Anne. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. NY: W.W. Norton, 1975.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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