There are many different discoveries throughout history that have made a lasting impact on what we know about the natural world. So many discoveries have changed the trajectory of our future from what we thought we knew into what we can possibly know.
One of the greatest discoveries that changed scientific thought at the time was the structure of DNA, dubbed “The Secret of Life.” It’s well-known to us, now, that the iconic double helix is what encodes a human being. We can do so many things with DNA now that we know its structure — from genetic sequencing techniques, to completely mapping the genetic history of a person’s ancestry in the language of their nucleotides. All of this was possible due to one key discovery.
We may have learned in school about Watson and Crick discovering DNA and winning the Nobel Prize for it in 1962 after writing a short two-page paper about the proposed structure, but what most people do not know is the woman who had given these two the tools to make their conclusions in the first place. An English woman named Rosalind Franklin pioneered the use of a new technology to bring to the table what would become a monumental discovery.
Franklin was born in London in 1920, the second of five children. She grew up with a particular focus in her career, instilled in her from her schooling at St. Paul’s School for Girls. Franklin’s quick intelligence was noted from a young age, along with her exceptional skills in science and mathematics, that she seemed to pick up in seconds. Not only was she good at numbers and atoms, she also picked up languages fairly well, becoming fluent in French and passable in Italian and German.
At the age of 18, Franklin entered Newnham College, one of the two women’s campuses at Cambridge. She majored in physical chemistry and graduated with honors. Afterwards, she spent some time doing work in the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA). Around this time, World War II held great sentiment over many citizens of the world, including Franklin. Instead of pursuing other wartime work, she opted to spend years researching the micro-structures of coal and carbon to explain their porosity and permeability. Franklin was the first to identify the pores in coal that hold certain molecular constrictions at a very small level, allowing them to act like sieves and block the passing of molecules of certain size. Because of her Ph.D thesis, “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal,” she was then able to classify certain coal — and their carbon composition — and predict their performance as fuel.
Her start to the DNA research begins, as we can say all stories do, in Paris. Franklin acquired a position in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat, where she learned the tools and skills of x-ray crystallography under Jacques Mering. At first, she used it to study the composition of carbons, but then she began to look at the diffractions of larger biological molecules.
Coming back to London, Franklin studied DNA under the query of John T. Randall (who was heading the Biophysics lab she was working in at King’s College) and Maurice Wilkins, the assistant lab chief. Working with her fellow scientist Raymond Gosling, Franklin took clear and concise diffraction photos of DNA, which had two forms: wet and dry. Each of these formed very different diffraction photos. She made an early educated hypothesis of the structure of DNA, citing that it was most likely helical in structure in the wet form, even though the dry form did not quite match up with her results.
In 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson were working on the theoretical model of DNA for a while. They came across Franklin’s DNA diffraction photos and read an unpublished paper about her work to aid them in coming to a final working model about the structure of DNA. Neither of them had mentioned her work other than in passing in their paper, nor did they tell Franklin they had seen her research. She went on to further study the structure of plant viruses, where she was able to see that a certain virus named TMV had genetical material known as RNA — the single stranded compliment of DNA — in the protein shell.
In 1956, Franklin found herself diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent numerous surgeries and other treatment, as well as many periods of remission, all the while pursuing what she had originally come to do: learn more about the natural world, and what creates it. She died on April 16, 1958, at 37 years old.
Her contribution to the knowledge of DNA, as well as RNA and carbon porosity, had not been acknowledged as it should have been during her lifetime. Crick, Watson and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for their theoretical model without giving Franklin her due credit.
Numerous works have been released portraying her to be a caricature of a jealous and angry woman shielding her work from the eyes of others, but Rosalind Franklin had been — from the very beginning of her 16 year long career — a scientist. She found herself in the pursuit of knowledge and used science as an explanation for life. As she says in a letter to Ellis Franklin, “Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment… I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.”