Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin biography

19/5/04. By Georgina Ferry

In reaction to the unflattering portrait of her James Watson painted in 'The Double Helix', Rosalind Franklin became a icon for feminists ten years after her early death. Today, while some still hold her to have been wronged because of her gender, her crucial role in the discovery of the DNA structure is universally acknowledged.

A popular biography has appeared ('Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda Maddox, Harper Collins 2002) and she joins the three DNA Nobelists in having buildings named after her in London and Cambridge. Her short life was not as tragic as it has often been represented, though her early death undoubtedly was.

Franklin was born into a wealthy London Jewish banking and publishing family in 1920. She developed a passion for science at St Paul's Girls' School, and went on to study chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Emerging with a good degree at the height of the Blitz, she went on to undertake research in physical chemistry at the British Coal Research Association, which led to a PhD by the time the war ended.

A meeting with the French physicist Adrienne Weil in Cambridge during the war brought Franklin the opportunity to work at the Laboratoire Central des Service Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris in 1947. There, under the direction of Jacques Mering, she learned to use X-ray diffraction to continue her studies of charcoals and other amorphous substances, and published several important and authoritative papers.

Her skills won her recruitment to the biophysics laboratory established by J T Randall at King's College in London, hired initially to work on proteins in solution. But by the time she arrived in January 1951 the direction of her research had changed – she had been told instead to work on DNA. She arrived full of misgivings about leaving Paris, and indeed her brief time at King's was not happy. Randall had given her to understand that she would be in charge of the X-ray work on DNA fibres, while Maurice Wilkins, who had begun work on DNA a couple of years before, believed she would be assisting him. They were temperamentally incompatible and unable to work out their differences.

Nevertheless she went on to produce a series of excellent X-ray photographs of DNA in two different forms, A and B, which she discovered she could produce in a controlled fashion by varying the humidity of the fibres. But under an agreement to split the work with Wilkins she worked only on the analysis of the A form. She gradually assembled data that could eventually reveal the structure. Wilkins, however, was in regular communication with Watson and Crick at Cambridge and in January 1953 he showed Watson Franklin's best photo - number 51 - of the B form. With certain theoretical insights they had already acquired, it was enough for Watson and Crick to infer the correct double-helical structure, which they demonstrated by building their famous model.

Biography: Francis Crick

By the time they had published their result in Nature in April of that year, Franklin had already left King's and gone to join J D Bernal's crystallography lab at Birkbeck College, also in London. There she formed a fruitful collaboration with Aaron Klug, who later moved to Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge and succeeded Max Perutz as its director. With a small group of assistants they worked on the structure of plant and animal viruses, making important advances that helped elucidate how these pathogens infected their hosts.

While still in her mid-30s, Franklin developed ovarian cancer. Despite a series of operations, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the cancer killed her in April 1958. According to her biographer, she never knew of the crucial role that her photograph 51 had played in the discovery of the double helix.

Share |
Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, UK T:+44 (0)20 7611 8888