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Rosalind Franklin was an English scientist who contributed to the discovery of the DNA double helix with Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick through her extensive work in x-ray crystallography. She also helped identify the molecular structure of RNA, coal, and viruses. She was not nominated for a Nobel Prize and died before its presentation to Watson, Wilkins, and Crick.

Young Life

Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25, 1929, in Notting Hill, London, England to a financially comfortable, influential British-Jewish family. Ellis Arthur Franklin, her father, was a liberal merchant banker in London who taught at the Working Men’s College in the city. Muriel Frances Wale, her mother, bore five children.[1] Her whole family helped her father with the Working Men’s College, where he taught magnetism, electricity and the history of the Great War.[2] Her family also helped resettle Jewish refugees who escaped from Nazi Germany.[3]


Rosalind Franklin demonstrated a natural academic ability, especially for mathematics, and at the young age of six, she entered Borland Place School, a private West London day school. [4] At nine, she moved to Lindores School for Young Ladies, a boarding school in Sussex. Two years later she moved to St. Paul’s Girl’s School in West London, one of a few that taught chemistry and physics. She learned German and French and won many annual academic awards. [5]

In 1938, Rosalind Franklin enrolled in Newnham College in Cambridge to study chemistry through the college’s unique Natural Science Tripos curriculum. She received second-class honors after taking her final exams since the college did not award Bachelors degrees to women until 1947. She then began a fellowship at Newnham College and worked with Ronald Norrish at the University of Cambridge in the physical chemistry lab. The two did not get along and she soon resigned.[6]

Rosalind then joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) as a research officer within the organization investigating the production, use, and distribution of coal and coal derivatives. She discovered microstructures within the coal that allow for the accurate prediction of their performance. She published five scientific papers, solely authored three of them, completed her doctoral thesis in 1945, and received a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

Early Career and X-Ray Crystallography

Rosalind Franklin’s work with x-ray crystallography and diffraction aided her later research in biological molecules that helped lead to the discovery of the DNA helix.

In 1946, Rosalind Franklin met Marcel Mathieu, who secured her a position in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris, working with Jaques Mering. Mering and Franklin learned and mastered x-ray crystallography and how to use it for complex minerals and crystals. The technique uses x-ray beams to bombard a crystal substance sample inside of a camera.

The electrons in the sample’s atoms diffract in different manners to create a pattern on a photographic plate. This allows the scientist to analyze the basic structure of the crystal’s atoms. She improved upon this method to image larger, complex molecules and their mathematical techniques. Rosalind Franklin felt the need to return to England and sought out work at King’s College, University of London.[7]

King’s College and DNA Science

In 1950, King’s College awarded Rosalind Franklin a three-year Turner and Newall Research Fellowship to begin in January 1951. She worked with J. T. Randall researching "the physical factors affecting mitosis and cell division, by direct and indirect methods.” Maurice Wilkins, assistant director of the lab, asked if Rosalind Franklin would use her knowledge of x-ray crystallography on the pure DNA samples given to him by Rudolf Singer. Randall did not inform her of the connection to Wilkins’ research and she did not work well with Wilkins, whom she thought imposing on her research.

If Randall had informed Rosalind Franklin of Wilkins work, she may have received the credit she deserved prior to her death.

Franklin continued with her research and, again, improved her x-ray equipment as Wilkins explored the idea of the helix. Both their experiments revealed a possible helix structure and, after first refusing him, the pair worked on the two different forms of DNA discovered in her research separately. She remained in the dark about Wilkins’ “race for the double helix” and in March 1953 she and Gosling drafted an article on the likely structure that appeared in a modified and expanded form in Watson and Crick’s publication on April 25 in Nature magazine. Rosalind Franklin published her findings in July 1953, but they never gave her proper credit for the importance of x-ray diffraction.[8]

Birkbeck College and Viruses

Rosalind Franklin soon moved to Birkbeck College to study virus structure under John Desmond Bernal, a scientist and x-ray crystallography pioneer she greatly respected. Bernal set her to discover whether the RNA in the tobacco mosaic virus formed in the middle of the spiral or embedded in the proteins. When she sent an article relating her identification of the uniform length and size in the particles and proteins to plant virologist Norman Pirie, he objected to her correct conclusions and cut off her virus culture supply. This forced her to grow her own.

Franklin encountered funding issues with the Agricultural Research Council due to her dealing with Pirie, and discovered a new world with fewer obstacles on her first trip to the United States in 1954. She attended the Gordon Conference with a paper on coal chemistry and visited several virus research laboratories across the continent. Franklin continued her work with RNA and plant viruses discerning new structures and experimental techniques. She returned to the Gordon Conference in 1956 with invites to the Royal Institution and the Brussels World Fair.[9]

Illness, Death, and the Nobel Prize

During her trip to the United States, Rosalind Franklin suspected a health issue. She returned to England and, on September 4, surgery revealed two tumors in her abdomen. She continued working and her group published seven papers in 1956 and six papers in 1957. They started work on the polio virus with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health Service. Franklin fell ill again near the end of the year and decided to make a will, giving much of her estate to charity. She worked again in January 1558 and received a promotion to research associate in February.[10]

Rosalind Franklin died on April 16, 1958, in London of ovarian cancer. She was buried in Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery in London on April 17, 1958.[11] She did not receive a nomination for the Nobel Prize that Wilkins, Crick, and Watson received after her death.[12]



Glynn, J. (2012). My Sister Rosalind Franklin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maddox, B. (2003). Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Polcovar, J. (2006). Rosalind Franklin and The Structure of Life. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Sayre, A. (2000). Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. The Rosalind Franklin Papers. Profiles in Science: U.S. National Library of Medicine.[2]

Wilkins, M. (2005). The Third Man of the Double Helix: The Autobiography of Maurice Wilkins. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 


  1. Glynn, 2012
  2. Maddox, 2003
  3. Sayre, 2000
  4. Maddox, 2003
  5. Glynn, 2012
  6. Maddox, 2003
  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d.
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d.
  9. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d.
  10. Maddox, 2003
  11. Conway, D. (2001, October 19). Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920 - 1958) Find A Grave Memorial.[1]
  12. Sayre, 2000

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