Nov 9, 2022 • 5M

Rosalind Franklin: The Real Unsung Discoverer of the DNA Model

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Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, into a wealthy and influential Jewish family in Notting Hill, London, England. Born as the first child of Ellis Arthur Franklin and Muriel Frances Waley, Franklin was a brilliant child who aimed to become a scientist at age 15. While excelling in science, she completed her early education at St. Paul's Girls' School and North London Collegiate School. Franklin enrolled in Newnham Women's College at Cambridge University in 1938 at 18, where she studied physics and chemistry.

Franklin graduated in 1941 and received a fellowship to complete research in physical chemistry at Cambridge. However, following the advance of World War II, in 1942, she had to give up her fellowship to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal. It served as the basis of her PhD thesis, "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal." Franklin secured her PhD in 1945 from Cambridge University for this work.

She was appointed to the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris in 1947, where she studied X-ray diffraction technology with crystallographer Jacques Mering till 1950. Her studies on the structural changes produced by graphite production in heated carbons proved helpful in the coking industry.

In 1951, Franklin became a research fellow at King's College London's Biophysical Laboratory, where director John Randall employed her knowledge and X-ray diffraction techniques on DNA fibres. Franklin and her student Raymond Gosling made an incredible discovery when studying DNA structure using X-ray diffraction. They photographed DNA and discovered a dry "A" form and a wet "B" form. Photograph 51, one of their X-ray diffraction images of the "B" type of DNA, became famous as vital evidence in establishing the structure of DNA. The scientific community referred to it as the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken. In addition, her effort to improve the clarity of X-ray patterns of DNA molecules laid the foundation for Francis Crick and James Watson's double helix model.

After leaving King's College in March 1953, Franklin continued working in the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London, till 1958.

Without Franklin's permission or knowledge, Maurice Wilkins, her colleague, disclosed Photograph 51 to James Watson, a competing scientist who was working on his DNA model with Francis Crick at Cambridge in January 1953. Watson and Crick used this to suggest the famous model of DNA, for which they secured a Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Wilkins. However, while Franklin was the real discoverer and the actual credit-worthy person behind the discovery of the DNA's structure, she never got acknowledged or recognised for her life's work.

After leaving King's College in March 1953, Franklin continued working in the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London, till 1958. There she concentrated her work on coals and studied the structure of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and the tobacco mosaic virus. Her experiments on viruses revealed that their RNA was a single-strand helix embedded in its protein rather than in its central cavity. In the following five years, Franklin published 17 studies on viruses, and her group laid the groundwork for structural virology.

Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956. Despite three operations and experimental chemotherapy, she continued to work for the next two years. She had a 10-month remission, while she continued to work until a few weeks before her untimely death on April 16, 1958, at the very early age of 37.

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