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Rosalind Franklin: heroine of the double helix

Posted by on September 24, 2014

Jess Devonport, external communications executive at NICE, celebrates the achievements of Rosalind Franklin and her place in our poll of the top ten biologists who’ve changed the world.

Photograph by C Luts

Photograph by C Luts

“We wish to discuss a structure for the salt of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA).” James Watson and Frances Crick wrote, “This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.”

This seminal understatement now underpins all work in molecular biology for the last 60 years. The discovery of the structure DNA, the self-copying double helical molecule that enables the genetic code to be inherited from one generation to the next, and Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to it is now a familiar story.

In her mid-teens, Rosalind had already decided that she wanted to pursue a career in the sciences, however, her father was not supportive of her choice, believing that higher education was not suited to women, and recognising the difficulties his daughter might encounter in such a career.

At the age of 18, Rosalind  enrolled at Cambridge University to study chemistry. By the time she graduated, in 1941, the second World War was pushing women to the centre of the domestic war effort, and the forefront of industrial and academic life. The proportion of women enrolled at university had increased significantly during the war, and female graduates were entering increasingly challenging and male-dominated careers, from military intelligence and code-breaking, to mechanical engineering.

Rosalind dismissed her father’s suggestion to become a land girl, and instead contributed to the war effort by working for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal. This work formed the basis of her PhD thesis, which she was awarded in 1945.

After the war, Rosalind was keen to move on from coal and England. In 1946, she went to work at Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques, in Paris, where she developed her skills as an X-ray crystallographer..

In 1951, Rosalind Franklin returned to Britain and went to work as a research associate in John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London. During this time, Franklin worked with Raymond Gosling, a graduate student, to perfect X-ray crystallography and solve the structure of DNA.

“Conclusion: big helix in several chains, phosphates on outside, phosphate-phosphate inter-helical bonds disrupted by water. Phosphate links available to proteins.” Franklin noted in 1952, closing in on the structure of the DNA helix.

At the same time, Watson and Crick were using advances in model-building to solve the DNA problem, but were struggling to make the three-helical structure, based on a mis-rembered lecture given by Franklin, work.

The turning point for Watson and Crick came in January 1953, when Wilkins showed Franklin’s Photo 51 and several of her notes to James Watson, without her permission or knowledge. With one look at the photograph, Watson saw the error in his model – that it ought to be a double helix.

Watson and Crick published their work, a two-page paper in Nature, in 1953; Franklin received no acknowledgement, save for a footnote stating that they were “stimulated by a general knowledge of her work”.

Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, four years after Franklin had died from ovarian cancer. The Nobel Committee do not award prizes posthumously.

Biology: Changing the World is a heritage project of the Society, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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