Decoding the blueprint of life
Name: Rosalind Franklin
Fields: Biophysics, biochemistry and crystallography
Claim to fame: Ground-breaking work that helped to identify the structure of DNA
The discovery of the structure of DNA was such a singular achievement that it earned three scientists a Nobel Prize. However, one unsung heroine of this accomplishment was Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) whose X-ray photographs were fundamental to unlocking the secrets of these “building blocks” of life.
The right chemistry
Rosalind Franklin was born in London into a well-off British Jewish family in 1920, the second of five siblings. Her father was a prominent merchant banker and her extended family counted her uncle Herbert Samuel, who was Home Secretary (Minister of the Interior) in 1916, and her aunt Helen Franklin, a trade union and women’s suffrage activist. Members of her family were also active in settling Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.
Family holidays were often walking tours, and Franklin developed an enduring passion for hiking, as well as foreign travel. As a reflection of this interest, she learnt to speak excellent French, good Italian and some German.
Rays of knowledge
Science was a lifelong passion and, as her mother recalled: “All her life, Rosalind knew exactly where she was going.” Franklin started her education at an independent girls’ school in London and attended Cambridge University where she eventually gained a PhD in chemistry.
She then went on to pursue a successful research career as a biophysicist who contributed to our understanding of the structure of several large molecules, including DNA, coal and viruses, until her life was cut tragically short by cancer, possibly due to excessive exposure to the X-ray radiation she used in her research. In January 1958, she died at the age of 37.
Franklin was educated at St Paul’s Girls School, an independent school in London which focused on preparing girls for careers. There, she excelled in science, Latin and sport.
In 1938, Franklin went to Cambridge University where she studied chemistry. When she graduated in 1941, she only received a “titular” degree because the university had not yet begun to award full degrees to women.
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated,” she wrote in a letter to her father in the summer of 1940. Following her own advice, Franklin began her research career by focusing on topics relevant to the war effort at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. There, she focused on the porosity of coal which became the basis for her PhD thesis which she completed in 1945. After that, she turned her attention to organic molecules.
After the war, she moved to France to work at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l‘État, where she continued to study the structure of coal using crystallographic methods.
In 1951, Franklin moved back to Britain to work at King’s College London, where she began her pioneering work on DNA, which was to become her most enduring legacy. Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA as it is most commonly known, is often described as the blueprint or code of all living organisms.
At the time, the genetic significance of DNA was widely recognised but no one knew what it looked like at the molecular level – and Franklin’s research was to lay the groundwork for identifying the distinct double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. Her X-ray photographs, including the famous ‘Photo 51’, were to prove invaluable to the work of Francis Crick and James Watson who were awarded – along with Maurice Wilkins – a joint Nobel Prize for describing the structure of DNA.
Despite her untimely death, Rosalind Franklin’s life was replete with scientific achievements, although she was under-recognised during her own life. Her major contribution was to help advance our understanding of microscopic structures. Her investigations into the porosity of coal sparked the idea of high-strength carbon fibres, such as modern composite materials.
In her later career, Franklin concentrated on the little-understood microscopic world of viruses. She focused on the tobacco-mosaic and polio viruses. But it is her pioneering work on DNA which has been her most notable legacy.