Biology, Physics, SciComm, Spectacular Scientists

Who was Rosalind Franklin?

A chemist, a physicist, a biologist: Rosalind Franklin was a truly inspiring woman, who- as you may notice is a recurring theme in the lives of historical female figures- went against the odds to strive for a career in science, despite the sexist beliefs of not just society, but also her father’s and lab partners’.

Headshot of Rosalind franklin
Rosalind Franklin

Born to an influential Jewish family (her uncle being part of the Cabinet, her aunt a suffragist and her father a banker) in London, Rosalind Franklin was one of the lucky few girls of the time to get a ‘proper’ education. She excelled at school (especially in Sciences and French) and was offered a scholarship to Cambridge. After a battle with her father (who believed she should aid the war effort through social work rather than become a scientist), she was able to go to Cambridge.

Here, she studied Physical Chemistry, and completed her PhD on the relationship between density, porosity and permeability of coal (how tightly packed it is, how holey it is, and how easy it is for water to pass through it). This discovery lead to more efficient gas masks to be used in WW2 and probably saved many lives: most definitely proving her father wrong!

It is likely that when hearing the name Rosalind Franklin, it is paired with X-Ray Crystallography. It is what allowed her to uncover the shape of DNA, and she was able to learn it because of her knowledge of French! She was invited to Paris and continued her research into coal, aided by Jacques Mering. But it was at King’s College, not Paris, where she made her celebrated discovery!

Working in the biophysics lab of King’s College London with her colleague Maurice Wilkins and PhD student Raymond Gosling to uncover the evidence of the structure of DNA, at the same time that James Watson and Francis Crick (often cited as the discoverers of DNA) were attempting to model it. Together, they refined their methods to slowly image the DNA, using X-Ray Crystallography, but it is Franklin who took the famous ‘Photo 51’.

Black and white image. A dark circle, thickest and darkest at top and bottom, with a dashed cross through the middle, and a small plain white circle in the middle
Photo 51

How does X-Ray Crystallography work?

X-rays are fired at the target, and are deflected by electrons in its atoms. The deflected x-rays darken the film, and leave an image. The structure of the molecule can then be inferred, as particular structures scatter the x-rays in specific ways. Seeing this image confirmed one of Watson and Crick’s theories, after they were shown it by Wilkins without Franklin’s consent!

They do briefly mention Franklin’s work in their paper, but it is possible that Franklin never knew the extent to which their deductions relied on her work!

Unfortunately, she died a few years before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick, and all of the recognition for her endeavour was posthumous.

What’s the point of it all?

Understanding the structure of DNA was the gateway to understanding how, and why, DNA is the molecule that encodes evolution and ultimately decides who we are. It is the driving mechanism of your body, telling your body what chemicals (mainly proteins) to produce and what to do with them, so understanding this seems to be the key to understanding who we are, and discovering possible treatments for those with genetic conditions! Additionally-and topically, as it always seems to be in the news- if we didn’t understand the structure, gene editing softwares like CRISPR wouldn’t be possible. Whether that is good or bad thing, I’ll leave you to decide! That’s a post for another day…


If you can’t trust an atom… trust in science!

☆it’s like magic, but it’s true whether you believe in it or not!☆

See you next time!


Why Rosalind Franklin? It is part of a (albeit sporadic) series of posts I am putting together on Women In Science!


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