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Rosalind Franklin – A molecular biologist and the women behind photograph 51

Full name: Rosalind Elsie Franklin
Born on: 25 July 1920, Notting Hill, London, England
Died on: 16 April 1958 (aged 37), Chelsea, London, England
Nationality: British
Education: Physical chemistry, X-ray crystallography from Newnham College, University of Cambridge, England
Well known for: Structure of DNA, Fine structure of coal and graphite, Structure of viruses

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a pioneer molecular biologist whose work led to the understanding of the structure of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. They received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1962.

Rosalind studied physics and chemistry in girls’ school in London. At the age of 15, she decided to become a scientist against her father’s wish to make Rosalind a social worker. To pursue her interest, she enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge University and graduated in Chemistry in the year 1941. She started working with British Coal Utilization Research Association in 1942 where she studied carbon and graphite microstructures. Further, she made a base of this study for her doctorate in physical chemistry. She got doctorate degree from Cambridge University in 1945.

Rosalind Franklin and Photo 51

She worked with Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat, Paris during 1947 to 1950 where she learned X-ray diffraction techniques. This later paved the way for further research in molecular biology. In 1951, she joined John Randall’s laboratory at King’s College, London in the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Biophysics Unit, directed by John Randall. It was a very difficult time for a woman researcher at that time.

DNA-structureHer contribution in discovery of structure of DNA

She developed interest in understanding structure of DNA (a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions and essential for all known forms of life) in Randall’s laboratory and started researching on this topic. Rosalind was entitled to work in DNA fibres at Randall’s laboratory as she was the only experienced experimental X-ray diffraction researcher there in 1951.

DNA molecule is very large and can be extracted in the form of the sodium salt to yield a highly viscous suspension of molecular fibres. DNA fibres produce diffraction patterns when exposed to X-rays. These patterns can be visualized in the form of pictures. This was a very difficult process. Rosalind and Raymond Gosling (a Ph.D. student assigned to help Franklin) started working on X-ray diffraction techniques to understand the structure of DNA. They have taken X-ray diffraction picture of DNA fibre (famously known as photograph 51, read more here – Behind the picture: Photo 51) which later contributed towards the discovery of double helical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick.

The X-ray diffraction pictures taken by Franklin at this time have been called, by J. D. Bernal, as “amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken”

(Read more on why photo 51 is the most important photo ever taken)

This X-ray diffraction picture of DNA provided valuable insight for understanding its structure, however, Rosalind’s scientific contributions to the discovery of the double helix of DNA are often overlooked (Read more here).

Rosalind left King’s College, London in March 1953 to move to Birkbeck College where she was involved in X-ray crystallography to study the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

In 1956, Rosalind started showing signs of illness and diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died on 16 April 1958, at the age of 37 at Chelsea, London, England.

Image credits: Rosalind Elsie Franklin, DNA

Editor’s note: There are many women scientists who are responsible for making discoveries and advances in the fields of environment and natural science. On the occasion of World Women’s Day, we at Green Clean Guide decided to share information on world’s renowned women scientists. This is a series of articles to pay tribute to these exceptional women. Please visit category – ‘World Women Scientist’ regularly for updated information. Green Clean Guide wishes its readers a very happy World Women’s Day.

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