July 25, 1920 – Birth of Rosalind Franklin, British Scientist Who Performed Critical Work in the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a British biophysicist, physicist, chemist, biologist and X-ray crystallographer born in London on July 25, 1920, this day in history. Franklin made seminal contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA, RNA, and certain viruses. Most of it went unrecognized at the time.  

Rosalind Franklin

Franklin is best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA. As the UK Royal Society acknowledges, her data was used to formulate Crick and Watson’s 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA.  Unpublished drafts of her papers show that she had determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix.  Franklin died four years before Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.  The Royal Society further notes that Franklin was unable to receive the prize as Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, but she received no mention in the acceptance speeches.  Although Franklin’s contribution to the ‘discovery’ of DNA is now widely recognized, there remains a lingering sense that her contribution was unjustly overlooked and undervalued.  Her contribution was not recognized in many science books until the 1990s.

As for her work on viruses, on the day before she was to unveil the structure of tobacco mosaic virus at an international fair in Brussels, she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958. Her team member Aaron Klug continued her research, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.

A profile of Franklin on a National Institutes of Health website observes:

Franklin’s work on DNA may have remained a quiet footnote in that story had Watson not caricatured her in his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix. There he presented Franklin as ‘Rosy,’ a bad-tempered, arrogant bluestocking who jealously guarded her data from colleagues, even though she was not competent to interpret it. His book proved very popular, even though many of those featured in the story–including Crick, Wilkins, and Linus Pauling–protested Watson’s treatment of Franklin, as did many reviewers. In 1975, Franklin’s friend Anne Sayre published a biography in angry rebuttal to Watson’s account, and Franklin’s role in the discovery became better known. Numerous articles and several documentaries have attempted to highlight her part in ‘the race for the double helix,’ often casting her as a feminist martyr, cheated of a Nobel prize both by misogynist colleagues and by her early death.”

Mural inscription on King’s College London’s Franklin-Wilkins Building, co-named in honour of Rosalind Franklin’s work

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