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There was More to Rosalind Franklin than DNA

Her contribution to Watson & Crick’s Nobel Prize is being recognised but do you know what else she achieved?

Template from Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953

Photo (cc) Science Museum London


Thumb through the history books and you’ll find very few women acknowledged as pioneers of science. It’s not that women haven’t been key to important discoveries throughout history, more that their work has usually been overlooked in favour of their male colleagues. Take, for example Lise Meitner, who collaborated with Otto Hahn in the discovery of the fission process: only Hahn was awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize for chemistry. Or Emmy Noether, whose mathematical theorems were revered by a certain Albert Einstein: she was shunned in her native Germany and mostly worked unpaid. Which brings us to Rosalind Franklin…


You’ve probably heard of Francis Crick and James Watson, famous for their discovery of the structure of DNA, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize (in physiology or medicine) in 1962. They were part of a team: for example, Maurice Wilkins was also recognised for his research and duly took his share of the prize. But much of the groundwork that led to their findings was done by Rosalind Franklin, and one particular item was to prove crucial to their success, yet it’s only recently that her contribution has started to receive the credit she deserves, and even today her other achievements are seldom recognised.


Born in 1920 into a prominent London banking family, Franklin always had a passion for science. After school she went on to Newnham, one of Cambridge University’s women’s colleges. On finishing her degree in 1941 she undertook graduate work at Cambridge with Ronald Norrish, a future Nobel Prize winner. However, she moved on shortly after to the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where she performed fundamental investigations on the properties of coal and graphite. This led to Cambridge granting her a PhD in physical chemistry.


After the Second World War, she gained an appointment at the Laboratoire Centrale des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris, where she was introduced to the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method of determining the structure of a crystal or similarly ordered molecule. The molecule is bombarded with X-rays which scatter in a unique pattern when they bounce off the electrons in the molecule’s atoms. By studying the resulting patterns in X-ray photographs, you can infer the molecule’s structure.


Franklin rapidly came into her own in this field and soon became a respected authority. In 1951, she returned to the UK and became responsible for upgrading King’s College London’s X-ray crystallographic laboratory for work with DNA. It was here that she did the work which led to Watson and Crick’s Nobel Prize.


She produced many X-ray pictures during her time at King’s but one, known as ‘Photo 51’ and made with the help of PhD student Ray Gosling, proved to be the key to unlocking the secrets of the building blocks of life. In 1953, Crick and Watson were able to deduce from Photo 51 that the DNA molecule is a double helix.


The importance of the discovery of the structure of DNA can’t be understated   – it revealed the physical and chemical basis of how characteristics are passed down through the generations and how they are expressed in individual organisms, and has led to crucial scientific breakthroughs in the study of innumerable areas, for example hereditary diseases and genetic engineering. It has also paved the way to genetic fingerprinting and modern forensics, and ultimately the mapping of the human genome.


Franklin died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, probably attributable to long-term exposure to X-rays. She was only 37.


In 1962, the Nobel Prize was finally awarded, but the prize cannot be given posthumously (a rule the Nobel committee still adheres to today). Had she lived, do you think she would have been included instead of (or as well as) Wilkins? Judging by the negative attitudes to women that have prevailed throughout history, (at least some of which were reportedly held by Watson himself) you might consider it unlikely.


But it’s not just her work on DNA structure for which Rosalind Franklin deserves recognition; in her short life she achieved much more. Her investigations into the porosity of coal demonstrated that, under certain conditions, coal allows small molecules to pass through its pores while larger ones are excluded. This ‘molecular sieving’ is now used in industry to separate gases, for example nitrogen from oxygen in air, and also led to a classification system for coal that is still used today to predict its performance as a fuel. She also contributed to the development of high-strength carbon fibres, used in modern composite materials, through her work on the nature of carbon.


In her later career, she concentrated on the little-understood microscopic world of viruses. Aaron Klug’s work on the tobacco-mosaic virus (the first virus to be discovered) was possible thanks to Franklin’s X-ray photographs – and he went on to receive the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1982. She worked extensively on the structure of the polio virus, which at the time was still prevalent in many parts of the world and causing paralysis in hundreds of thousands of children. (The polio vaccine was still relatively new at this time).


Since her death, Franklin has been recognised and appreciated by her scientific peers to a much greater degree, but it’s taken time for her contributions to reach the wider public. Last year she was the inspirations for a stage play called ‘Photograph 51’, and was played by Nicole Kidman. It’s a shame so many undervalued her when she was alive.


To date, fewer than 20 women have won a Nobel Prize in a scientific category, compared with hundreds of men. Although archaic attitudes still prevail (take, for example, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s daft comments last year on women in the lab distracting their male colleagues by falling in love and crying when criticised) there are far more women in science today than in Franklin’s day. And in the past 20 years, a higher proportion have been recognised by the Nobel committee (see, so things are improving.


In 2005, the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter was launched to recognise the commitment of institutions that promote and advance the careers of women in various science subjects. Institutions receive either a bronze, silver or gold award which, in some cases, can increase their likelihood of receiving government funding for their research. Rosalind Franklin would undoubtedly have been delighted to know that King's College London has been a member of the Athena SWAN Charter since 2007.


Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Patron of Swan, talks to Impolite Science here [link]

Sarah Barnett

About the Writer

Sarah is Impolite Conversation's science editor.


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