Rosalind Franklin

Biography of Rosalind Franklin a British biophysicist and crystallographer; and the true discoverer of DNA.

But, in England at the beginning of the 20th century, women dedicated to science were systematically ignored, if not despised.

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Institutions, their male colleagues, and worse, society as a whole, had condemned them to unfair anonymity.

Rosalind Franklin is a clear example of this.

In 1962, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of the structure of DNA. It is necessary to know that ten years before, Rosalind Franklin had managed to photograph the B side of the hydrated DNA, the famous photo 51, a key piece to get to find it.

Childhood and family of Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was born in London’s Kensington district on July 25, 1920.

She was the second of five children in a wealthy English Jewish family, Ellis and Muriel Franklin.

Kensington Rosalind Franklin
House in London’s Kensington South neighborhood. Credit: Wikipedia

Ellis Franklin, took care to give his children the best education possible, as has always been the case with Jews.

Rosalind completed her primary and secondary studies in private schools.

Already as a child, she proved to be an intelligent girl with an exceptional passion for science.

Rosalind Franklin was a contemporary of the famous British nutritionist Elsie Widdowson and the Austrian scientist Lise Meitner.

Rosalind Franklin Studios

When she finished high school in 1938, she expressed her desire to go to university to study Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.

Ever since Rosalind listened to Einstein at one of his lectures, she has intended to dedicate his life to the service of science.

At first, her father was openly opposed, refusing to believe that a woman, even if she was his daughter, had to dedicate herself to research; this, despite the fact that he himself had studied science, and even learned German in order to try to become a scientist.

This conflict was caused by social conventions. However, the girl’s intelligence and determination, added to the fact that her parents were progressive, was resolved in Rosalind’s favor.

She and her parents considered education to be a primary value. She was finally allowed to enroll in a Cambridge Women’s College at Newnham College in 1938.

Newnham College Rosalind Franklin
Newnham College Cambridge. Credit: Wikipedia. Azeira.

At the age of 18, the brilliant Rosalind took the entrance exam in Physics and Chemistry at Cambridge, the best center in England to study these disciplines.

There Newton had taught and there the Cavendish Laboratory had been founded. At that time it was the best place for a person with scientific concerns.

At Cambridge she met Professor William Bragg, who was awarded in 1915 along with his son, the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to X-ray crystallography.

William Bragg
William Henry Bragg, Nobel Prize in Physics along with his son William Lawrence Bragg. Credit: Nobel Foundation

Rosalind Franklin investigating in crystallography

The Bragg’s discoveries had shown that when an X-ray beam passes through a crystal, it leaves a kind of identity mark.

This trace reveals what the structure of the crystal molecule is like and the placement of its atoms.

This was Rosalind’s first contact with crystallography. She suspected that the structure of the crystals could be discovered using X-rays.

Therefore, she decided to become familiar with the three-dimensional study of extremely small matter.

Rosalind Franklin Higher Studies

She graduated in 1941, but did not earn a Bachelor’s degree, because she was a woman.

As compensation, and due to her excellent qualifications, she received “Second Class Honors” (a kind of title that recognized her as fit for a job).

It was not until 1947 that Cambridge began awarding bachelor and master degrees to women.

Rosalind got a small scholarship for a year, to continue studying in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and obtain a doctorate.

But, her father asked her to give that money to a refugee student from World War II, who deserved it.

This generosity was due to the fact that in 1939 the Franklin family had almost been trapped in Norway, as World War II began while they were on their way home.

In the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, she was fortunate to work with physicist Ronald Norrish, a pioneer in photochemistry and a future Nobel laureate.

Ronald Norris
Ronald George Wreyford Norrish. Credit: Wikipedia

Working life of scientist Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin, apart from enjoying her work, was happy because she felt independent living in a rental apartment where she could receive her friends and enjoy her free time at will.

In 1942, she accepted a job at the British Coal Utilization Research Association.

Charcoal was, in the heat of war, a fuel of great importance, since it was used as a filter for gas masks.

After investigating the different types of coal, Rosalind presented five publications that contributed to the manufacture of a more effective gas mask.

Rosalind Franklin
Young Rosalind Franklin. Credit: botoblog

In those years, the doctorate was awarded to very few chosen ones. Among them was her. In 1945, for her work on “Micro structures of carbon and graphite”, the University awarded Rosalind Franklin the title of Doctor of Physics and Chemistry.

In England, it was one thing exceptionally to allow women to study and quite another to allow them to do one of the jobs “for men.”

Rosalind Franklin looked for a better job in France

Seeing the job panorama that was presented to her, Rosalind Franklin, who was 26 years old, decided to leave her native England and explore the world.

In 1938, before the war, Rosalind had traveled to France and had fallen in love with the country, for its language and for the French way of life.

After the war, in 1946, she made an excursion to the French Alps and reaffirmed her love for the country, its people and its food.

In her last year at Cambridge, she met Adrienne Weill, a French refugee who had been a student at Marie Curie.

Adrienne Weill had a great influence on the career and life of Rosalind Franklin. With her she learned to speak French. These fond memories encouraged her to go to France, in search of an interesting job.

Adrianne Weill Rosalind Franklin
In the photo, physicist John Nielsen with Adrienne Weill, mentor and friend of Rosalind Franklin. Credit: Creative Commons

One of her friends got her an interview with the manager of the State Chemical Services Laboratory in Paris.

This manager was called Marcel Mathieu and Rosalind’s attunement to the scientist was instantaneous. It was the year 1947, the worst ravages of the war had passed and Rosalind was immediately hired by Mathieu for a job as a physicochemist.

Alongside Mathieu, Rosalind learned and developed highly innovative techniques for crystal research.

Chief among them was X-ray diffraction, also called ‘X-ray crystallography‘. A complex and unknown technique, which attempted to apply the method of crystallography to non-crystalline materials.

X-ray crystallography. Credit: IES Rosa Chacel, Spain

In this friendly, relaxed and enterprising environment, Rosalind, who was extremely intelligent, acquired excellent dexterity. Her scientific eye was refined and she was able to perfect these processes and publish several studies of great scientific interest.

Rosalind Franklin was not married

The young woman was already 30 years old, a suitable age for marriage. But Rosalind was clear on things and did not decide on this option.

Years later, her friends said that she never found the right man, who would compensate her enough to leave the investigation and … freedom.

Rosalind Franklin’s return to England

She worked alongside Marcel Mathieu for four years; and, although she loved life in Paris, she decided to return to her parents, to London, in December 1950.

Rosalind Franklin nicroscope
Rosalind Franklin under the microscope. Credit: blog bioquí

Upon learning of her return, the director of the laboratory at King’s College, London, offered to occupy herself with studying, with the new technique, the structure of DNA.

The scientist set up her laboratory solving the deficiencies that her predecessor, Maurice Wilkins, had not been able to fill.

The return of the latter, who was on vacation, was not exactly pleasant. Unable to assimilate the improvements that the newcomer had brought to “his laboratory” he set himself against the newcomer.

Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004), was originally from New Zealand, and was also dedicated to the study of DNA. The two of them could have made an extraordinary team.

Unfortunately, Wilkins’ misogyny and competitiveness caused a permanent conflict, to the detriment of the weakest and least combative part.

Women who worked in the laboratory were not even allowed to go for coffee in the room where the men met for a break.

At that time the dehydrated form of the molecule (form A) was known, which did NOT suggest a helical form. Rosalind first concentrated on interpreting the diffraction patterns using Patterson’s laborious formulas.

Kings College Rosalind Franklin
Library building at King’s College London. Credit: web

Rosalind Franklin decisive in DNA Research

The first images obtained in London with dehydrated DNA were known in Cambridge.

Watson had had the opportunity to attend the class Rosalind Franklin taught in November 1951, in which she announced the progress of her research.

A few months after this class, in 1952, when she revealed an X-ray diffraction photograph, which she obtained in one of her experiments, Rosalind observed that it showed, unmistakably, the helical structure of the DNA molecule.

She used X-ray diffraction to capture the DNA double helix structure, something detectable with the naked eye by the bands arranged in a cross.

According to experts, that perfect ‘X‘ in the center was revealing of the spiral staircase structure of the hereditary macromolecule.

Later, this photograph was called ‘Photograph 51’, and marked a before and after, in relation to the knowledge of the structure of life as we understand it now.

Behind Rosalind’s back, the resentful Maurice Wilkins showed this image to the biologist James Watson, who worked with Francis Crick on the same subject. Quickly, these two brilliant scientists set about imagining a DNA structure and worked on remaking a 3-D model of the DNA they had made.

Watson and Crick showed Rosalind their helical model with three chains, in which magnesium ions held the phosphates together and towards the periphery the pentoses and nitrogenous bases.

Rosalind Franklin downplayed their conclusions:

  • a) the quantity of water in the model did not correspond to that of the diffraction studies;
  • b) the phosphates and, therefore, the “skeleton” of the molecule had to be on the outside of it;
  • c) there was not really any consistent indication that the structure was helical.

The rumor of these attempts reached the chief, Sir Lawrence Bragg, who decided to order Watson and Crick to continue their normal jobs and put aside these attempts at DNA studies.

Cunning prevailed: James Watson focused on the study of the tobacco mosaic virus.

This has RNA as one of its fundamental constituents. Elucidating this structure would allow him to get closer to DNA and, in the process, deepen his knowledge in crystallography.

Meanwhile, during 1952, Rosalind Franklin repeated crystallographic studies, with different degrees of hydration.

Upon hydration, the diffraction was completely different (Form B).

Francis Crick had worked to decipher what the helical structures of proteins would look like on crystallographic images.

And that was exactly what he had in front of him in Rosalind Franklin’s report.

Later, a report that Rosalind Franklin had sent to Sir John Randall, was delivered by him to Watson and Crick, without knowing that they already knew him.

With this model, Jame Watson and Maurice Wilkins elaborated the famous “double helix” hypothesis that is characteristic of the molecular structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Shortly thereafter, on April 25, 1953, the prestigious journal Nature published three articles on the great findings of biology, under the single title “Molecular Structure of Nucleid Acids“.

The first, signed by Crick and Watson, was the star of the revelation of the scientific discovery, the structure of DNA, not to mention Rosalind Franklin at all; the second was an article by Wilkins; and the third, that of Rosalind.

Uncomfortable with this professional disloyalty, Rosalind Franklin decided to abandon everything related to the subject.

Her scientific career continued, leading pioneering work related to the tobacco mosaic virus and polio virus.

It is a pity that two such brilliant men have been carried away by misogyny and did not practice the “fair play” that so much honors British culture.

The DNA double helix model is considered the most important medical achievement of the 20th century, and opened the way for the understanding of molecular biology and genetic functions; antecedents that made it possible to establish the “complete” sequence of the human genome.

University Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin University, Illinois Building of Medicine and Science. Credit: Wikipedia

Rosalind Franklin’s illness and death

Unfortunately, ovarian cancer, caused in part by repeated radiation exposures, killed Rosalind.

She died in London on April 16, 1958, when she was not even 38 years old.

In 1962, Watson (rogue to the end) made sure that Rosalind Franklin’s name was not even mentioned in the Nobel Prize award, as if this exceptional scientist had not participated in the crucial discovery.

Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.

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