Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer known for her contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Born in West London, she was educated at the Lindores School for Young Ladies in Sussex and the St Paul’s Girls’ School, which taught physics and chemistry. She excelled at mathematics, science, German, Latin, and French, and cricket and hockey. In 1938 she entered Newnham College in Cambridge, studying chemistry within the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, before joining the University of Cambridge with a research fellowship for physical chemistry laboratory. She accepted a research position in 1942 from the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal using helium to determine its density, and helped to classify and predict performance for fuel purposes. During this residency she lived with friend and mentor, former student of Marie Curie and then a French scientist and refugee, Adrienne Weill’s boarding house, until she moved in with her cousin Irene Franklin where she volunteered as an Air Raid Warden seeing to the welfare of people during air raids. After earning her Ph.D. in 1945 at the end of WWII, Adrienne introduced her to Marcel Mathieu, the director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which connected her to Jacques Mering at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris, where she became a postdoctoral researcher. Working with Mering, she became an accomplished X-ray crystallographer, applying X-ray crystallography to amorphous substances. In 1950 she was granted a three-year fellowship at King’s College where she worked at the Biophysics Unit, directed by John Randall who assigned her to work with Maurice Witkins (with whom Rosalind had well-documented friction) and Raymond Gosling, a Ph.D. student assistant, on X-ray diffraction studies, which eventually led to the double helix theory of DNA. Together, Rosalind and Witkins discovered the two forms of DNA, which she named “A” and “B”, and which they split between them to focus on separately. The landmark X-ray diffraction picture “Photo 51” has been called one of the “most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken”. After finishing her work on DNA, she moved to Birkbeck College in 1953, where she oversaw her own research team, leading pioneering work on the molecular structures of viruses. She died in 1958 at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer.