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The Rosalind Franklin Papers

Biographical Information

[Rosalind Franklin mountain climbing in Norway]. [ca. 1940s].
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"Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience, and experiment. . . . I agree that faith is essential to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining."
--Rosalind Franklin in a letter to Ellis Franklin, ca. summer 1940

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, the brilliant chemist whose x-ray diffraction studies provided crucial clues to the structure of DNA and quantitatively confirmed the Watson-Crick DNA model, was born in London on July 25, 1920, the second of five children in a prominent Anglo-Jewish family. Her father Ellis Franklin was a partner at Keyser's Bank, one of the family's major businesses (publisher Routledge & Kegan Paul was another). Both he and his wife Muriel were active in charities and other community services. Rosalind attended St. Paul's School for Girls, which emphasized preparing its graduates for careers, not just for marriage. She had demonstrated an early aptitude for math and science, and an easy facility for other languages (she would eventually speak excellent French, good Italian, and passable German). Unlike many with a talent for languages, she had little ear for music; Gustav Holst, then music director at St. Paul's, once noted that Rosalind had improved to the point of singing "almost in tune." Franklin family vacations were often walking and hiking tours, and hiking became one of Rosalind's lifelong passions, as did foreign travel.

"All her life," Franklin's mother later noted, "Rosalind knew exactly where she was going, and at sixteen, she took science for her subject." Rather than stay an extra year for more college preparation, she left St. Paul's in 1938 to enter Newnham College, one of two women's colleges at Cambridge University. (Her father did not, as some accounts state, oppose her in this, though he might have preferred her to choose a more traditional course afterward.) At Cambridge, Franklin majored in physical chemistry. Her undergraduate years were partly shaped by World War II; many instructors, especially in the sciences, had been pulled into war work. Some émigré faculty (e.g. biochemist Max Perutz) were detained as aliens. In one letter Franklin noted, "Practically the whole of the Cavendish [Laboratory] have disappeared. Biochemistry was almost entirely run by Germans and may not survive." Cambridge also took in a number of war refugees, including the French scientist Adrienne Weill, who arrived at Newnham in 1940, and became Franklin's mentor and friend.

Franklin received her BA in 1941, and was awarded a scholarship for a further year of research, and a research grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. She spent that year in the laboratory of R. G. W. Norrish, a noted pioneer in photochemistry. In 1942, with the war still on, she had to decide whether to be drafted for more traditional war work or pursue a PhD-oriented research job in a field relevant to wartime needs. She chose the latter, and began work with the recently organized British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) that summer. For the next four years, Franklin worked to elucidate the micro-structures of various coals and carbons, and explain why some were more permeable by water, gases, or solvents and how heating and carbonization affected permeability. In this original work, she found that the pores in coal have fine constrictions at the molecular level, which increase with heating, and vary according to the carbon content of the coal. These act as "molecular sieves," successively blocking penetration of substances according to molecular size. Franklin was the first to identify and measure these micro-structures, and this fundamental work made it possible to classify coals and predict their performance to a high degree of accuracy. Her work at BCURA yielded a doctoral thesis--she received her PhD from Cambridge in 1945--and five scientific papers.

After the war, Franklin began searching for different work. Adrienne Weill, who had returned to France, helped her get a position in Jacques Mering's lab at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l'Etat in Paris. At the "labo" she learned how to analyze carbons using x-ray crystallography (also called x-ray diffraction analysis), becoming very proficient with the technique. Her work detailing the structures of graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbons helped form the basis for the development of carbon fibers and new heat-resistant materials, and earned her an international reputation among coal chemists. She also enjoyed the collegial professional culture of the Laboratoire Central, and formed many lifelong friendships there.

Though very happy in France, Franklin began seeking a position in England in 1949. Her friend Charles Coulson, a theoretical chemist, suggested she look into doing x-ray diffraction studies of large biological molecules. In 1950 she was awarded a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship to work in John T. Randall's Biophysics Unit at King's College London. Randall had originally planned to have Franklin build up a crystallography section and work on analyzing proteins. At the suggestion of the assistant lab chief, Maurice Wilkins, however, Randall asked Franklin to investigate DNA instead. Wilkins had just begun doing x-ray diffraction work on some unusually good DNA samples. He expected that he and Franklin would work together, but Randall's communication to Franklin did not convey this; it said that only she and graduate student Raymond Gosling would do the DNA work. Her subsequent relations with Wilkins suffered from this misunderstanding (and perhaps from Franklin's unhappiness with the less collegial culture at King's). Within six months of her arrival at King's in early 1951, they were having very little to do with each other. Working with Gosling, Franklin took increasingly clear x-ray diffraction photos of DNA, and quickly discovered that there were two forms--wet and dry--which produced very different pictures. The wet form she realized was probably helical in structure, with the phosphates on the outside of the ribose chains. Her mathematical analyses of the dry form diffractions, however, did not indicate a helical structure, and she spent over a year trying to resolve the differences. By early 1953 she had concluded that both forms had two helices.

Meanwhile, at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, Francis Crick and James Watson were working on a theoretical model of DNA. Though not in close communication with Franklin, in January 1953 they gleaned crucial insights about DNA's structure from one of her x-ray diffraction photos shown to them by Wilkins, and from a summary of her unpublished research submitted to the Medical Research Council. Watson and Crick never told Franklin that they had seen her materials, and they did not directly acknowledge their debt to her work when they published their classic announcement in Nature that April. Crick later admitted that Franklin was two steps away from realizing the correct structure in the spring of 1953.

By that time, Franklin had arranged to transfer her fellowship to J. D. Bernal's crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College, where she turned her attention to the structure of plant viruses, particularly tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). Working with a team that included future Nobelist Aaron Klug, Franklin made meticulous x-ray diffraction photos of the viruses. Her analyses of the diffraction patterns revealed, among other things, that TMV's genetic material (RNA) was embedded in the inner wall of its protective protein shell. This work involved collaboration with many other virus researchers, particularly in the United States. Franklin made two lengthy visits there, in 1954 and 1956, and established a network of contacts all over the country, including Robley Williams, Barry Commoner, and Wendell Stanley. Her expertise in virus structures was recognized by the Royal Institution in 1956, when its director honored her with a request to construct large-scale models of rod-shaped and spherical viruses for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair Science Exhibition.

In the fall of 1956 Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. For the next 18 months she underwent surgeries and other treatments; she had several periods of remission, during which she continued working in her lab and seeking funding for her research team. She died in London on April 16, 1958.

Throughout her 16-year career, Franklin published steadily: 19 articles on coals and carbons, 5 on DNA, and 21 on viruses. During her last few years, she received increasing numbers of invitations to speak at conferences all over the world, and it is likely that her virus work would have earned awards and other professional recognition, had she lived to continue it.

Franklin's scientific achievements, both in coal chemistry and virus structure research were considerable. Her peers in those fields acknowledged this during her life and after her death. But it is her role in the discovery of DNA structure that has garnered the most public attention. Crick, Watson, and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their work on the structure of DNA. None gave Franklin credit for her contributions at that time. Franklin's work on DNA may have remained a quiet footnote in that story had Watson not caricatured her in his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix. There he presented Franklin as "Rosy," a bad-tempered, arrogant bluestocking who jealously guarded her data from colleagues, even though she was not competent to interpret it. His book proved very popular, even though many of those featured in the story--including Crick, Wilkins, and Linus Pauling--protested Watson's treatment of Franklin, as did many reviewers. In 1975, Franklin's friend Anne Sayre published a biography in angry rebuttal to Watson's account, and Franklin's role in the discovery became better known. Numerous articles and several documentaries have attempted to highlight her part in "the race for the double helix," often casting her as a feminist martyr, cheated of a Nobel prize both by misogynist colleagues and by her early death. However, as her second biographer, Brenda Maddox, has noted, this too is caricature, and unfairly obscures both a brilliant scientific career and Franklin herself.

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