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Rosalind Franklin: the “wronged heroine of DNA”

Saturday, February 26th, 2022 -- Known to most as the “wronged heroine” of the double helix structure of DNA and a victim to the presence of sexism in biotech history, Rosalind Elsie Franklin made a positive impact in the world of genetic material and viruses. Born on July 25, 1920 to a wealthy Jewish family in London, Franklin knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in science. She went on to study physics and chemistry at Newnham Women's College at Cambridge University.

Rosalind Franklin - British Chemist known for her contribution to current DNA model [Source:]

After her undergraduate years, which were shaped largely by World War I, Franklin joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she investigated the physical chemistry of carbon and coal for the war effort. Franklin then moved to Paris in 1946 to perfect her X-ray diffraction technology/X-ray crystallization skills, which she later applied in her work as a research fellow at the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College, London. It was there where she crossed paths with assistant lab chief Maurice Wilkins and a graduate student named Raymond Gosling who aided her in discovering the density of DNA and the double helical structure of the molecule through X-ray diffraction.

While Franklin was conducting further research on the true structure of DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson, not knowing about Franklin’s research, were working towards creating a theoretical model of DNA at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In January 1953, Wilkins showed them Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images and provided them with a brief of her unpublished research, which allowed Watson and Crick to further complete their model and publish their work, without ever directly acknowledging Franklin’s contribution to their model. However, Crick did note her critical research shortly after her death.

Franklin traveled to Birkbeck College where, ironically, she began working on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, adding to research that Watson had done prior to his work on DNA. During the next few years, she did some of the best and most important work of her life, and she traveled the world talking about coal and virus structure. However, just as her career was peaking, it was cut short when she died of ovarian cancer at age 37.



(2020) Rosalind Franklin. In: Accessed 26 Feb 2022

Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution. In: Nature news. Accessed 26 Feb 2022

(2020) Rosalind Franklin was so much more than the 'wronged heroine' of DNA. In: Nature News. Accessed 26 Feb 2022

(2022) Rosalind Franklin. In: Wikipedia. Accessed 26 Feb 2022

Rosalind Franklin. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed 26 Feb 2022


Helpful Definitions

  • Double helix structure of DNA: describes the twisted ladder appearance of the two-stranded DNA molecule

  • X-ray diffraction technology/X-ray crystallization: a scientific method that involves X-rays being diffracted through a crystal to visualize a detailed, three-dimensional molecular structure

  • Tobacco mosaic virus: a single-stranded RNA virus that causes the blotched browning of tobacco leaves and many other leaves

#biotechnology #bioengineering #DNA #scientist #people