The British physical chemist and molecular biologist Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) made her most outstanding contribution to molecular biology by establishing the crystallographic basis for the structure of DNA.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London, England, on July 25, 1920, the second child and first daughter of Ellis and Muriel (Waley) Franklin. Her family's background was in banking and the arts. Yet, by the age of 15 she had chosen science as her vocation. Years later she still debated this decision with her father, who eventually accepted it even though it meant, at that time, a choice of career over marriage and family life.
Following St. Paul's Girls' School in London, she went to Cambridge University in 1938 as a chemistry student at Newnham College. After graduation in 1941 she remained in Cambridge on a research scholarship to study gas-phase chromatography with Ronald G. W. Norrish, a Nobel Laureate for Chemistry in 1967.
Between 1942 and 1946 Franklin's expertise in physical chemistry was called upon to study the physical structure of coals as assistant research officer of the British Coal Utilization Research Association. In 1945 Franklin received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University for a thesis on "The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids with Special Relation to Coal and Related Materials."
Early in 1947 Franklin left London for Paris where she was a researcher at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'État. There she worked closely with Jacques Méring until the end of 1950, having become an expert in X-ray crystallography. Her work was fundamental for what is now known as carbon-fiber technology.
As X-ray crystallography of biological compounds was rapidly expanding in Britain under the auspices of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in the early 1950s, Franklin returned to London. She joined the MRC Unit at King's College. There John Randall, who arranged for her to receive the Turner-Newall fellowship for three years, suggested that she work on DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) structure.
The main outcome of the research Franklin conducted at King's College between January 1951 and March 1953 was published, with her research student Raymond G. Gosling as a co-author, in Nature on April 25, 1953. It included the X-ray photography of the B form of DNA ("Sodium deoxyribose nucleate from calf thymus. Structure B"), which provided the basis for the interpretation of DNA structure as a double helix by James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick. Their own famous paper appeared in the same issue also, in the section "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids." This joint publication, accompanied by yet another corroborating paper on DNA structure by Maurice H. F. Wilkins, A. R. Stokes and H. R. Wilson, also from King's College, conveys a misleading impression of the circumstances of the discovery of DNA structure. It appears as if this discovery resulted from a close cooperation linking the MRC Biophysics Research Unit and the Wheatstone Physics Laboratory, King's College, in London, and the MRC Unit for the Study of the Molecular Structure of Biological Systems at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where Watson and Crick worked. Due to this contiguity, the experimental papers by Franklin and Gosling and by Wilkins, Stokes, and Wilson became "mere" corroborations, although they were independent interpretative efforts. In contrast, the double helix model gained further credibility from this juxtaposition, as it moved from the status of a "hypothesis" to that of a "proven" theoretical statement. All three papers professed advance knowledge of the general nature of the research performed both in King's College and in Cambridge.
By the time her DNA paper was published Franklin was no longer at King's College. She had found it imperative to leave because of Randall's unjustifiable injunction to abandon the DNA problem altogether. She moved to Birkbeck College in London, where John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971), a founder of British X-ray crystallography of biological compounds, welcomed her to work on the structure of TMV (tobacco mosaic virus), a project he had begun before World War II. In 1954 Franklin and Aaron Klug started a fruitful collaboration. Following her untimely death in 1958 he brought to completion their TMV work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1982, in part for this work.
With the recognition of the fundamental importance of DNA structure for molecular biology in the 1960s, Franklin's work on DNA became a subject of great attention. In 1962 the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology was awarded to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins, when Franklin was no longer alive. First clues about her role in the complex events which surrounded the discovery of DNA structure emerged in 1968 when Watson published his bestselling and highly controversial autobiography, The Double Helix. Nicknamed "Rosy" in a derogatory manner, Franklin was depicted there as the key obstacle to Watson and Crick's hunt for a helical interpretation of DNA. She was allegedly "anti-helical" and refused to disclose data she was in the course of interpreting herself. Franklin, Wilkins, and Linus C. Pauling, the Nobel Laureate for Chemistry (1954) and for Peace (1962) who had worked briefly on DNA in 1953, were portrayed as the "losers" in a "race" for the double helix, evidently won by Watson and Crick. As a result, both Franklin's work and her personality became the object of distortion.
Crick saw it differently: "After all, the structure was there waiting to be discovered—Watson and I did not invent it. It seems to me unlikely that either of us would have done it separately, but Rosalind Franklin was getting pretty close. She was in fact only two steps away. She needed to realize that the two chains were anti-parallel and to discover the base-pairing." Wilkins also acknowledged Franklin's contribution, posthumously, in his Nobel Lecture. Klug provided evidence, quoting Franklin's notebooks, that she was close to solving the DNA structure.
Her friend and biographer Anne Sayre suggested that Franklin might have been impeded in her progress on DNA by the problematic attitude towards women and minority researchers prevailing at King's College at that time. Although various authors lay emphasis on the clash of personalities at King's College, where Franklin was isolated, a key fact still remaining to be clarified concerns credit appropriation. Or, as F. R. Jevons put it: "Winner Takes All."
Franklin had too short a life to straighten the DNA record herself, having died of cancer on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37. How appropriate were J. D. Bernal's words: "Her early death is a great loss to science."
An assessment of Franklin's career was J. D. Bernal, "Dr. Rosalind E. Franklin" in Nature 182 (July 19, 1958). The three papers on DNA structure appeared in Nature 171 (April 25, 1953). On Franklin, see: Edward Garber, editor, Genetic Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1985); John Gribbin, In Search of the Double Helix (1985); Frederick Raphael Jevons, Winner Takes All (1981); Horace Freeland Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation (1980); James D. Watson, The Double Helix. A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Gunther S. Stent, editor (1980; the original version, without reviews and comments, appeared in 1968); Pnina G. Abir-Am, "Review of A Century of DNA" in ISIS 69 (1978); Nicholas Wade, The Ultimate Experiment (1977); Maurice H. F. Wilkins, "The Molecular Configuration of Nucleic Acids," in Nobel Lectures in Molecular Biology 1933-1975 (1977); Anne Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA (1975); A. Klug, "Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix," (published together with eight other papers for the 21 years of the double helix) Nature 248 (April 26, 1974); and Robert Olby, The Path to the Double Helix (foreword by Francis Crick, 1974).