You’ve probably heard of DNA—the genetic information contained in each human cell— but perhaps you haven’t heard of the person who helped discover its unique structure: Rosalind Franklin. Though her discoveries about DNA structure led to a paper that won the Nobel Prize, Franklin's accomplishments were not initially credited to her. Luckily, records of Franklin's work ultimately came to light, and her true contributions to science are now understood by the general public.
In 1938, a young Franklin aspired to be a scientist and successfully passed her entry examination into Cambridge University. In her pursuit, she was initially met with resistance. Her father did not believe in women’s education and refused to pay for her schooling. Fortunately, an aunt volunteered to cover the cost. Nudged by this show of support and some convincing from her mother, Franklin’s father eventually gave in and funded her education.
After graduating in 1941, Franklin began work on her doctorate. She sought to examine a wartime problem: how to use coal and charcoal more efficiently. Franklin published five papers on the subject that provided foundational knowledge for the field of high-strength carbon fibers. She then got her PhD at the age of 26, just after the end of World War II.
Then, Franklin started work on X-ray diffraction, which are images of crystallized solids created by running crystallized matter through an X-ray. Franklin refined this method to analyze more types of matter, including non-crystallized, largely unorganized matter.
In 1950, Franklin was invited to King’s College in London to join a group of scientists studying micro-organisms. The leader of this group assigned Franklin to work on X-ray crystallization of DNA with a graduate student, Maurice Wilkins.
Here, Franklin customized the X-ray diffraction procedure to figure out DNA’s structure by using finer beams of X-rays and finer DNA fibers to image DNA bundles in humid conditions. Her images revealed a huge discovery—DNA’s structure is a double helix. Sadly, Wilkins took Franklin’s work, an X-ray diffraction of a double helix, and shared it with Cambridge biologists Francis Crick and James Watson without her knowledge or consent. Crick and Watson used this image to write their Nobel Prize-winning paper about DNA structure, which was then published in 1953. This act of plagiarism allowed the two men to pull ahead in the race of illuminating the mystery of DNA's structure, which left Franklin in the dust.
After this happened, given other forms of blatant sexism she experienced, including not being allowed to eat lunch in the same room as male colleagues, Franklin sought to leave King's College. However, the head of King's College had her continue studying here on the condition that she stop working on DNA. Franklin switched to the field of virology and published 17 papers in five years that established the field.
Franklin opened doors for women to pursue science, engineering, and technology fields. Despite the struggle she endured, she managed to lay the groundwork for multiple fields. Franklin died at the young age of 37 of Ovarian cancer. Though much of her name went unrecognized during her life, today Franklin's legacy is recognized and respected.
[Source: PBS.org, Scitable]