Rosalind Elsie Franklin (July 25, 1920 - April 16, 1958) was a British molecular biologist who played an important role in the discovery of the structure of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin was born in London, England, and was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, graduating in 1941. Because of the ongoing war, World War II, she worked at the British Coal Utilization Research Association studying the nature of coal and charcoal and how to use them most efficiently, a problem affecting the war. Her work helped spark the idea of high-strength carbon fibers and was the basis of her doctorate degree in physical chemistry that she earned in 1945. She learned X-ray diffraction techniques during three years' study in Paris at the Laboratoire central des services chimiques de l'État, returning to England to work as a research associate at King's College London in the Medical Research Council's Biophysics Unit, directed by John Randall.
Maurice Wilkins was already carrying out X-diffraction analysis of DNA in the Unit (it was one of his photos, shown at a meeting in Naples, which inspired James D. Watson to come to Cambridge to do similar research). Unfortunately, Randall had implied that Franklin alone would be working on DNA, apparently not informing Wilkins of that fact. Wilkins was on vacation when Franklin arrived, and so he returned to find that his research project had been taken over by a newcomer. This was not a good start to the relationship which went progressively downhill.
Franklin together with her Ph.D. student Ray Gosling obtained some excellent X-ray diffraction photographs of DNA, but refused to consider that the data suggested that DNA might be a helical molecule. Watson and Francis Crick were already thinking of helical structures when Wilkins showed a photograph of the so-called B-form of DNA to Watson on a visit King's. However, Wilkins never told Franklin her work had been shown to Watson. Using the information together with other data, Watson and Crick succeeded in building a model incorporating the data, which was published in Nature on April 25, 1953 an article describing the double-helical structure of DNA. Articles by Wilkins and Franklin illuminating their X-ray diffraction data supporting the findings of Watson and Crick were published in the same issue.
Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 in London; which was quite possibly caused by exposure to radiation in the course of her research. Wilkins, Watson, and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
Much has been written on the role that Franklin played in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Her work was an important basis for determining DNA's structure and used extensively by Crick and Watson, but the correct deduction itself was mostly the work of Crick and Watson. Whether, given time, Franklin would have reached the same deduction in the rather competitive race (including such figures as Linus Pauling) to discover the structure of DNA is unknown. Watson has stated that Franklin should have discovered the structure of DNA as much as two years before he and Crick did; on the other hand, Crick has said Franklin should have made the discovery within three months, if he and Watson had not published their paper.
Some have said, including Watson, that Franklin deserved a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize received by Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Some say she was denied this due to sexism, but the award would have been impossible under the Nobel Foundation's bylaws. The prize cannot be split more than three ways, and even if Franklin's work might have been deemed more meritorious than one of the other actual recipients', her death in 1958 had made her ineligible. (Posthumous prizes are permitted only if the recipient dies after the award is announced).
In 2004, Finch University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School, located in North Chicago, IL, changed its name to Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. It is the only university in the United States to be named for a female scientist.
- Maddox, Brenda Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, 2002. ISBN 0060184078.
- Sayre, Anne. 1975. Rosalind Franklin and DNA. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.