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Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin Photo

Rosalind Franklin was born on 25th July 1920 in London. Fortunately, she belonged to a rather enlightened Jewish family of that time who were extremely supportive of education and public service. By the time Franklin was 18, she was studying physics and chemistry at the Cambridge University’s Newnham Women’s College.  After finishing her education at Cambridge she joined the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she worked on the porosity of coal and which later became the thesis of her PhD and afforded her to travel the world as a guest speaker on the subject.

In 1946, Franklin travelled to Paris to master her skills in X-ray crystallography; this would later turn out to be her life’s work.  Franklin was soon charmed by the lifestyle of Paris and enjoyed the freedom with which she could move around. However, in spite of her love for Paris, she moved back to London to take on a job at the King’s College

Her Work & Passion

Franklin was a woman with robust emotions and a sharp intelligent mind. She was a lover of the outdoors, an ardent hiker and a fearless traveller. One of her other passions was her love of discussing science or politics. To friends, family and colleagues she seemed larger than life with her brilliant mind and a warm, kind heart. But as is the case with all highly intelligent people, she was often short-tempered when faced with frustration and a lot of her colleagues found her quite hard to work with.

One such colleague who found Franklin difficult to handle was Maurice Wilkins. What started as a misunderstanding between the two colleagues, soon turned into a clash of egos and in spite of being a team, they both mostly worked in isolation. This was ideal for Franklin, but after some time, Wilkins found more fertile ground for his ideas and way of work at “the Cavendish” laboratory in Cambridge. Here he not only reunited with his friend Francis Crick but also got to meet James Watson, both of whom were working on developing the model of a DNA molecule.

At this point, Wilkins shared some of Franklin’s unpublished data, including the beautiful “photo 51,” with Crick and Watson. This work included the X-ray diffraction picture of a DNA molecule, which turned out to be the inspiration for Watson’s Helix model of the DNA strand. All throughout this time, Franklin was unaware of Wilkins sharing her work with his two friends. When Watson and Crick presented their findings with the model, Franklin’s contribution was not acknowledged. However, after her death, Crick admitted that the DNA model would not have been possible without the contribution of Rosalind Franklin.

However, in the discovery of the structure of DNA, Franklin got a raw deal even though she made a crucial contribution to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. While writing her biography, Brenda Maddox called Rosalind Franklin the “Dark Lady of DNA,” based on a disapproving comment of a colleague about Franklin. However, this negative comment in itself shows the positive impact of Franklin’s hard work in the discovery of DNA.

Death and Legacy

In later years, Franklin moved to Birkbeck College, where she started working on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. It is ironic that here Franklin started improving the work of James Watson which he had put aside while working on the DNA project. During this time, she did the most significant work of her life and travelled all over the world, lecturing about coal and virus structure. Unfortunately, by the time her work and career started to really take off, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died in 1958 at the age of 37.


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