Health And Medicine

Rosalind Franklin – The Real Person Behind the Discovery of DNA

Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography t...
Rosalind Franklin used X-ray crystallography to help visualize the structure of DNA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have heard stories about some fortuitous individuals getting recognition for someone else’s contributions and works. This type of thing did happen among the scientists and researchers with exceptional abilities who didn’t get the sort of appreciation they deserved. Sad to say, Rosalind Franklin was one of them. Most people think Francis Crick and James Watson were the person behind the discovery of DNA. They’re not. It was Rosalind Franklin’s data that they used — to formulate their hypothesis about their discovery of double helix structure of DNA.

Here’s a brief story about Rosalind Franklin:

Rosalind Franklin was a British biophysicist and X-ray crystallographer whose work for the discovery of the structure of the DNA has often been overlooked. Born into a Jewish family, she later became agnostic. Since childhood, she bore an extraordinary scholastic abilities. At the age of 15, she showed a strong urge to become a scientist, but her father who was against the higher education of women stood in her way. Her aunt encouraged her to study further saying she would pay her for education. With her aunt’s and mother’s support, her father eventually had to give in.

Rosalind Franklin went to Cambridge, at the time when Cambridge didn’t offer Bachelor or Master degree for women. Later on, she got 2nd class honor degree and went to France to learn crystallography. She came back to London to join King’s College where she was assigned to work on DNA, it was originally Maurice Wilkins’ work, but he was on vacation t that time. On his return, he came to know he would have to share his work with Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin was bold, impatient and precise, whereas Wilkins was totally opposite. Both of them were characterized by their diametrical attitudes and none of them wanted to work with the others and this eventually led to conflicts between the duo. At the same time, two young researchers – James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge were working on the same model. Wilkins showed Crick, the X-ray crystallography of the DNA taken by Franklin without her consent and this led Crick and Watson gained crucial information they needed to complete their model. Wilkins was basically a harmless mugger.

At King’s, Rosalind Franklin decided to leave for Birkbeck college but Randall, the director of the project let her leave on the condition that she’d leave all her DNA work at King’s. After her departure, Wilkins was given her work. On basis of which he proved the double-helical structure of DNA. In next 7 years, that led him to share the 1962 Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick. Rosalind Franklin died four years before that, so she couldn’t be nominated for the prize.

In 1956, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer (not even illness could refrain her from working). She published 13 papers before and her death came in 1958. During her illness, she chose not to stay with her parents because of her mother’s crying and intense grief. Other than her DNA analysis, she also worked on RNA, tobacco mosaic and polio viruses, coal and graphite.

Rosalind Franklin was a world-class crystallographer. J.D. Bernal described her DNA crystallography as ‘the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken’. In his book  ‘the double helix’, James Watson refers to her as ‘Bossy Rossy’. Crick acknowledged – ‘I’m afraid we always used to adopt patronizing attitude towards her’.

Rosalind Franklin was the kind of woman who wouldn’t waste her time worrying about what others thought of her. She was logical and conscientious. She always wanted ‘enough evidence’ before publishing her research. She was courageous and ambitious and she’s one of the BEST women scientists ever and a role model for women, even today.


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