Wednesday, 16 April 2014

WISE: Rosalind Franklin

Born on July 25th 1920, Rosalind Franklin grew up in pre-World War Two London in a well-known Jewish family; a family that was known for being quite clever and outspoken. Her parents had sent her to St. Paul’s Girls’ school, which was a private school that was known for its rigorous academics, including physics and chemistry. By the age of fifteen, Franklin knew that she wanted to be a scientist.

Franklin ended up passing her admission exams to get into the University of Cambridge in 1938; this ended up sparking a family crisis. Although her family had a tradition of public service and the want to help the welfare of the public, her father didn’t approve of her wanting to go onto further education as he didn’t agree with women going to university, and refused to pay her university fees.  In the end, it was her aunt who stepped in and said that Franklin should be allowed to go to University, and she would be the one paying for it. Franklin’s mother also took her side in this until her father at last gave in.

In 1939, the war broke out in Europe and Franklin stayed studying in university. In 1941, Rosalind graduated from university and then started to work on her doctorate in physical chemistry, which she then earned from Cambridge in 1945.

Franklin then moved to France where she learnt about X-ray diffraction techniques from Jacques Mering in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat.  Franklin was then offered a 3-year research scholarship in King’s College, London, in 1951. She ended up not only setting up but also improving X-ray crystallography to try and solve the DNA problem at King’s University.

Whilst working in John Randall’s laboratory, Franklin crossed paths with Maurice Wilkins. They had led different research groups but both had been based on DNA. When Franklin had started research at King’s, Wilkins had not been there at the time, and when he had returned he had thought that she was a technical assistant. Their relationship had a bad start that ended up never getting any better. His mistake was surprising at the time though as university wasn’t a common thing for women. Only men were allowed to go into the university dining rooms and after-hours, Franklin’s colleagues would end up going to men-only pubs. 

This didn’t deter Franklin though and she pushed through her DNA project and J.D Bernal called her X-ray photographs “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.” Franklin came extremely close in solving the mystery to DNA in 1951-1953. She ended up being beaten to publication by Crick and Watson. At  one point, Wilkins had ended up showing Watson one of Franklin’s crystallographic portraits of DNA. When Watson saw the pictures he ended up figuring out the solution, and the results when into an article in Nature almost immediately about the structure of DNA. Wilkins and Franklin published their papers on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue.

Google celebrated Franklin's 93rd birthday
In 1953, Franklin ended up leaving Cambridge and went to the Birkbeck lab to work on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. She ended up publishing a lot of papers on the subject and did a lot of the work whilst suffering from cancer which she ended up dying from in 1958. And in 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Wilkins, Crick and Watson for solving the structure of DNA.

A debate about the amount of credit that Franklin should get for her input still continues but what is clear is that she played an extremely meaningful role in learning the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank.

Rosalind Franklin shows us that though you may not be the first to solve a problem, the work getting to the answer is just as important and that a lot of the time scientists aren’t given the credit they are due. Even though Franklin didn’t solve the structure of DNA, she carried on with research in different fields and carried on trying to help other parts of science. 

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