One of the most important scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin helped us to better understand the stuff life is made of: DNA.
Having grown up in 1920s and 30s London, Franklin excelled at school and won a scholarship to study chemistry at Cambridge University; although her father, a prominent Jewish banker, insisted she donate the scholarship fund to a worthy refugee student instead.
Franklin went on to earn a PhD working on the porosity of coal. Her research later proved useful for the design of wartime devices such as gas masks. In 1947, Franklin travelled to Paris where she learnt the ‘dark art’ of crystallography: a technique that exploits X-rays to uncover the atomic structure of matter.
When she returned to the UK in 1951, Franklin set about using crystallography to try to determine the structure of DNA: the molecule that contains genetic instructions underpinning life. At King’s College London, she created ‘Photo 51’: a diffraction image of DNA that was later used to determine the molecule’s helical structure.
Franklin played a fundamental role in the work on DNA, but other researchers often downplayed her contribution. Tragically, Franklin contracted ovarian cancer and died at the age of 37; four years later, the Nobel Prize was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of the DNA double helix.
Before her death in 1958, Franklin went on to make other breakthroughs, augmenting our understanding of RNA: the molecule that encodes virus genes. She is remembered as a pioneering and meticulous researcher, whose work helped to shape the course of scientific history. In recent years, Franklin’s vital contributions to science have become more apparent, and this amazing scientist is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
Born in London in 1920 to a prominent British Jewish family
Won a scholarship to study chemistry at Cambridge University
Research on coal informed design of wartime devices such as gas masks
Moved to Paris, becoming an expert in a technique called ‘crystallography’
Exploited crystallography expertise to help solve the structure of DNA
Went on to study RNA, uncovering vital new information on several major viruses
Want to know more about Franklin’s legacy? Read about the Rosalind Franklin Institute: an EPSRC-funded multi-disciplinary science and technology centre for research into disease and drug design which will have its central hub at Harwell.
Last updated: 01 February 2018