Rosalind Franklin played a pivotal role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Among scholarly circles, Franklin remains an enigmatic figure and the subject of much controversy. What is not under debate is that she made enormous contributions to science, and she was taken from us much too soon.
Join DNA Dan each month as he dives deep into the world of genetics, genomics, DNA, and the future of precision genomic medicine. Dan discusses health and ancestry genetic testing, forensic genetics, genetics and mental health, common myths about genetics, and more.
DNA Dan, SCU Professor of Genomics, Dan Handley, M.S., Ph.D., shares his knowledge from his over 30 years of experience in the world of advanced genomics research and biotechnology.
Please visit our website for more information about Southern California University of Health Science's Master of Science Program in Human Genetics & Genomics. https://bit.ly/SCU-DNA_Dan
As mentioned in the previous episode, Rosalind Franklin played a pivotal role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Yet she remains a controversial and enigmatic figure among scholars.
Franklin was born in 1920 and grew up in England. During World War II, she attended the University of Cambridge where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s and ultimately her doctorate in 1945. As a physical chemist, her doctoral dissertation was based on her studies of the porosity of coal, which had wartime significance because it helped predict the performance of coal as a fuel as well as suitability for use in gas masks.
After the war, she went to Paris for a position as a research associate to continue her studies on the molecular structure of carbon. There, she met an X-ray crystallographer who taught her the techniques involved. In 1950 she gained a position in London at King’s College and was assigned to a laboratory where Maurice Wilkins and his graduate student Raymond Gosling were using X-ray crystallography to study DNA.
As accounts of the time portray, Wilkins and Franklin did not get along well. Franklin refined the X-ray crystallography equipment and techniques Wilkins and Gosling had been using. Although Franklin supervised the experiments, it was actually Gosling who took the famed photo 51 Watson and Crick had used in their quest to determine the structure of DNA.
Franklin went on to pursue research at Birbeck College in London. There she studied RNA in the form of RNA viruses such as the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and poliovirus.
In 1956 she began to experience health problems. After seeking medical attention, she was found to have two cancerous tumors in her abdomen. Her diagnosis was ovarian cancer. She continued to work whenever she could but eventually died of complications of her illness in April 1958.
In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize. Although Crick, and likely others, felt that Franklin should have been included, the Nobel Prize policy was that awards could only be given to those still alive and not awarded posthumously. Gosling of course was not nominated nor included as well.
About 10 years after the Watson and Crick’s initial publication of the proposed structure of DNA, he published his account of the discovery in the book he named The Double Helix. In early versions of the book, he praised Franklin for her scientific acumen but criticized her for being difficult to work with and uncaring about her appearance. In later editions, he tried to redeem his position by stating that he was initially too harsh and that he wished Franklin would have shared the Nobel Prize for her contribution to his work.
Over the years, many different accounts of Franklin’s professional and personal life have been written. Certainly, sexism in the sciences, particularly in the 1940s and 50s, was commonplace. Franklin seemed to have few if any close relationships, and apparently alienated a number of male scientists. On the other hand, she seemed to have had very congenial professional relationships with Francis Crick and others.
There seems to be a consensus, however, that Franklin was a no-nonsense person, deeply committed to her scientific work, with extraordinary intelligence and ability to focus. If some of her contemporaries interpreted that as being non-sociable or anti-social, that interpretation is left to the beholder. In stark contrast, others who knew her perceived her as amiable and personable.
Over the past few decades, Franklin has been the subject of both scholarly and popular works. Books, film, TV, and plays have been written about her in her honor, and in an effort to help right past wrongs.
Among scholarly circles, Franklin remains an enigmatic figure and the subject of much controversy. What is not under debate is that she made enormous contributions to science, and she was taken from us much too soon.