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Dr. Rosalind Franklin

A role model for our university, aspiring scientists, health professionals and those underrepresented in STEM

Our university was dedicated in 2004 to Rosalind Franklin, PhD, the brilliant and trailblazing scientist whose Photo 51 revealed the double helix of DNA — a discovery that was essential in unlocking the mystery to how life is passed down from generation to generation. Dr. Franklin’s passion for learning, her pursuit of extreme clarity and her unflinching commitment to the highest standards of scientific research brought “lasting benefit to mankind,” and make her an ideal role model for our students, faculty and aspiring scientists and for health professionals throughout the world.

A physical chemist, researcher and foremost expert in crystallography, Dr. Franklin’s renown grew out of the two years she spent conducting research at King’s College London in the early 1950s, as scientists across the globe raced to discover the structure of DNA. Working in a laboratory environment less than collegial to female scientists and often in isolation, Dr. Franklin patiently struggled to prove the structure through mathematical computations and to capture the B form of DNA through more than 100 hours of photographic exposure. While her Photo 51 and related data were integral to the 1953 discovery and description of the double helix structure of DNA, her contribution went largely unrecognized for nearly 50 years.

The story of Dr. Franklin who, despite gender disparity and discrimination, relentlessly pursued the answers to questions that have improved health and longevity around the world, speaks to new generations who take up the struggle for equality and improved well-being. Her perseverance and determination in the face of entrenched injustice offers hope to underrepresented groups across the academy, across STEM, across countries and economies that continue to fight for parity in compensation, advancement and recognition.

The fruits of Dr. Franklin’s life, her science and her drive for excellence will continue to impact the health of human beings for generations to come. Her namesake university — the first medical institution in the nation to so recognize a female scientist — honors ideals that can lead each generation to the advancement of science and “the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future.”

Destined for Science

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London on July 25, 1920, into a prominent family of Anglo-Jewish scholars, leaders and humanitarians who placed a high value on education and service. She was an intellectually precocious child who, according to her mother, “all her life knew exactly where she was going and took science for her subject” at the age of 16. She was a conscientious and gifted student with a keen sense of justice and logic and a facility for languages. She thrived on intellectual debate, challenging others to justify their opinions and positions, a method she used throughout her life to clarify her own understanding, to learn and to teach.

Rosalind was a devoted daughter and sister and loyal and gracious to her many friends and colleagues. Family members recall her lively sense of humor, her straightforwardness, her love of cooking. She was an experienced mountaineer who loved to travel and explore nature.

Education

Rosalind’s early education in private preparatory and boarding schools prepared her for enrollment in Newnham College, one of two schools for women at Cambridge University. She majored in physical chemistry and held herself to high standards of scholarship. She refused to let the challenges of their time defeat or define her. She steadfastly pursued her education during World War II, despite the bombs that rained down on London during the Blitz, despite shortages and rationing and despite family pressure to leave Cambridge for safer ground and, perhaps, for work aiding the war effort. As the Nazis marched across Europe, she continued her studies while closely following the war, debating British foreign policy in letters to her family and volunteering as an air raid warden.

Her excellent exam scores earned her a graduate research scholarship, a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, providing an excellent reason to stay at Cambridge despite the war. But she clashed with her supervising professor, R.G.W. Norrish, after discovering a fundamental error in the project he had assigned her. Professor Norrish refused to accept her findings and demanded she repeat the experiments. Rosalind wrote that Norrish “became most offensive” when “I stood up to him.” Norrish told a Franklin biographer years later that he did not approve of the junior investigator’s interest in “raising the status of her sex to equality with men.”

Dr. Franklin earned a bachelor’s in 1941 and the next year, as more women moved into academia and industry, she accepted a position with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she designed and conducted experiments to understand the microstructures of carbons and coals — work that ultimately benefited the Allied cause.

Life and Work in Discovery

She earned a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge in 1945 at a time when few women were working as professional chemists or researchers. Her published thesis was titled “The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids with Special Reference to Coal and Related Materials.”

The war in Europe at an end, Dr. Franklin spent the next four years pursuing postgraduate research at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. There, she enjoyed the freedom to pursue her interests. She learned and became an expert at the technique of crystallography, also called X-ray diffraction — a method that determines the arrangements of atoms in solids and crystals. Her expertise in revealing the structures of different carbons laid the groundwork for new industrial uses of carbon and aided in the development of heat-resistant materials.

By the age of 30, she was an an international authority on carbons, with numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals to her credit. In 1950, she was awarded a three-year Turner and Newall Research Fellowship at King’s College London to study changes in protein solutions. Dr. Franklin embraced the shift from physical to biological chemistry, but before she could begin her research, the assignment abruptly changed.

Having acquired a specially-prepared nucleic gel, King’s College instructed Dr. Franklin to apply her expertise in X-ray diffraction to the groundbreaking investigation into the structure of DNA. Her innovative use of the technology would soon prove key to discerning the helical structure of the DNA molecule.

She spent the first eight months at King’s working in close collaboration with PhD student Raymond Gosling to design and assemble a tilting micro camera and understand and refine the conditions necessary to get an accurate diffraction image of DNA. In May 1952, aided by Dr. Gosling and the special camera, Dr. Franklin suspended a tiny DNA fiber, the thickness of a strand of hair, and bombarded it with an X-ray beam, for 100 hours of exposure under carefully controlled relative humidity. Diffracted by the electrons in the atoms of the fiber, the rays produced a pattern on a photographic plate. Dr. Franklin performed mathematical computations to analyze the pattern in an attempt to reveal its structure.

Never had X-ray crystallography been put to such deft or momentous use. In April 1953, Dr. Franklin published Photo 51 in the same issue of the journal Nature in which Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick announced their double helix model of DNA. Dr. Franklin’s data corroborated this new model, but it’s not clear if she knew that her unpublished research had helped inspire and construct it.

Challenges at King’s

Throughout her work at King’s, Dr. Franklin struggled to cope with a less than collegial and sometimes hostile environment where she may have suspected anti-Semitism and sexism at play and where, according to at least one scientist interviewed by biographer Brenda Maddox, her work was undervalued. “Without benefit of academic appointment or rank,” she faced barriers to collaboration and communication from day one.

Dr. Franklin was drawn to the King’s lab by what proved to be misleading communications from Professor J.T. Randall, head of the male-dominated biophysics unit. While assigning her to take over the X-ray diffraction work at Kings, he neglected to share that decision with biophysicist Maurice Wilkins. Dr. Wilkins, who had been immersed in microscopic examination of DNA fibers but had begun using X-ray diffraction to study the samples, had urged Dr. Randall to hire Dr. Franklin based on the excellence of her postdoctoral research. He expected to help oversee her and interpret her photographs. But Dr. Franklin was led to believe by Dr. Randall that the DNA work was her sole territory.

Strained relations between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Wilkins were further fueled by miscommunications and by very different temperaments, and eventually by Dr. Wilkins’ increasing camaraderie with Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick at the competing Cavendish Lab, who were struggling to decipher DNA through modeling. Early in 1953, Raymond Gosling showed Photo 51 to Dr. Wilkins, who in turn showed it to Dr. Watson who immediately grasped the helical structure as essential to the replication of DNA. Dr. Watson would later write in his book “The Double Helix,” “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.”

Photo 51

Photo 51, the luminous picture of the substance of life — the B form of DNA — was captured by Dr. Franklin through X-ray diffraction in May 1952. The lighter diamond shapes above and below and on either side of the darkened X suggest a pattern of a double helix. The diffraction pattern provided a wealth of structural information, which was required to build the model of DNA. The actual structure of the molecule resembles a spiral staircase comprised of two railings or sugar-phosphate backbones and steps, or four base pairs: adenine and thymine and guanine and cytosine.

Dr. Franklin’s work with DNA was spurred by a new energy and a new emphasis on biology that swept post-World War II science. The 1951 discovery of the alpha helix, a primary structure in proteins, by American scientist Linus Pauling also fueled the race to define the structure of DNA. Teams in the United States and United Kingdom competed, building on each other’s advances. They constructed models and employed Dr. Franklin’s specialty, X-ray crystallography, in a drive to understand DNA’s structure. Little did they know that the structure itself would provide the key to understanding how genetic information is transferred from one generation to another.

Dr. Franklin patiently refined the conditions necessary to obtain an accurate diffraction image of DNA. By controlling the water content of the fiber, she discovered that DNA exists in two forms — A and B. Photo 51 captured the B form of DNA with the aid of a micro camera designed, assembled and modified by Dr. Franklin. Within the camera she suspended a tiny DNA fiber the thickness of a strand of hair, and bombarded it with an X-ray beam for 100 hours of exposure under carefully controlled relative humidity. Diffracted by the electrons in the atoms of the fiber, the rays produced a pattern on a photographic plate. Analyzed through mathematical computation, the pattern proved instrumental to understanding the blueprint for life.

Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin prepared to leave King’s.

Virus Research

Dr. Franklin left King’s College in early 1953, at the invitation of her friend and mentor, J.D. Bernal, who was director of Birkbeck College’s Biomolecular Research Laboratory.

Another University of London school, Birkbeck was known for its egalitarian atmosphere. Dr. Franklin had worked under Dr. Bernal, the world’s leading crystallographer, as a postdoc in Paris.

A week before the groundbreaking Photo 51 was published in Nature, Dr. Randall sent Dr. Franklin a letter, addressed to her lab at Birkbeck, instructing her to stop working on — and stop thinking about — DNA. But Dr. Franklin was already turning her attention to more pioneering research — the study of plant viruses. She would go on to lead her team in decoding the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus.

By the mid-1950s, she was at the top of her field, preeminent in X-ray diffraction and sought after as a speaker for scientific conferences throughout Europe and the United States. Frequently she was the only woman presenter. In spite of her growing reputation and many published papers, Dr. Franklin had to fight for status and pay. She lacked job security. She struggled to obtain funding and equipment. After her fellowship ended, she received a three-year contract for virus research from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), which offered her, with no explanation, a reduction in her salary entitlement and refused her the rank of principal scientific investigator.

Despite those humiliations, Dr. Franklin championed her science and the people who depended on her. She wrote to her ARC supervisor that the work of her group at Birkbeck concerned what was "probably the most fundamental of all questions concerning the mechanisms of living processes, namely the relationship between protein and nucleic acid in the living cell....Moreover,” she continued, “in no other laboratory, either in this country or elsewhere, is any comparable work on virus structure being undertaken.”

Dr. Franklin thrived on many trusting and fruitful collaborations with other scientists, particularly on coal and virus research, including at Birkbeck with Aaron Klug, a physicist, chemist and crystallographer. She made two extended trips to the United States, where she visited laboratories and both shared and gathered information on new findings and obtained funding — denied her in England — from the National Institutes of Health for her virus research.

Early death

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 1956, Dr. Franklin continued to work and travel during periods of remission. She continued to push for financing for her research group at Birkbeck, which had been asked to build models of viruses for the Brussels World’s Fair. She died on April 16, 1958, the day before the opening of the fair, where the five foot-tall models drew great interest in the International Science Hall.

In a moving tribute, Dr. Bernal, who had been so instrumental to and supportive of her work, lauded Dr. Franklin’s “single-minded devotion to scientific research.” He wrote that her career “was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook.” Dr. Bernal credited Dr. Franklin with “ingenious experimental and mathematical techniques of X-ray analysis” that brought her very close to singlehandedly unraveling the mystery of how life is transmitted from cell to cell, from generation to generation.

Four years after Dr. Franklin’s death, Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick, along with Dr. Wilkins, accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery and description of the structure of DNA, while Dr. Franklin’s brilliant illumination and critical data analysis went largely uncredited and unnoticed.

Rosalind Franklin published consistently throughout her career, including 19 papers on coals and carbons, five on DNA and 21 on viruses. Shortly before her death she and her team, including Dr. Klug, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1982, embarked upon research into the deadly polio virus.

Rosalind Franklin’s legacy

Dr. Franklin’s legacy lives on in her science, which continues to bring inestimable value to humankind, in her love for the natural world, and in her character. She set high standards for herself and others and diligently pursued answers to her questions despite the many obstacles she faced. Her next discovery was as close as her X-ray tube and spectrometer, as close as the laws of chemistry and physics, as certain as her conviction that “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

The discovery of the structure of DNA sparked a revolution in the biological sciences and technology and expanded knowledge in many other fields. Based on the structure of DNA, the new science of molecular biology was born, leading to prevention, diagnosis and treatment in ways that were unimaginable in 1952. The advances in identification and analysis of the genetic code based on Dr. Franklin’s work have produced breakthroughs that changed the trajectory of science and will continue to improve the human condition.

On Jan. 27, 2004, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science became the first medical institution in the United States to recognize a female scientist through an honorary namesake. Then President and CEO Dr. K. Michael Welch hailed Dr. Franklin as “a role model for our students, researchers, faculty and all aspiring scientists throughout the world.” He declared Photo 51 as the university’s logo and declared “Life in Discovery” as its motto.

Reporting on the renaming ceremony, the Chicago Tribune noted that university officials remarked that taking the name of a “talented outsider who never got the credit to which she was entitled,” was an apt metaphor for the scrappy, independent university.

Sources

  • Brenda Maddox. “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” 2002.
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine, Profiles in Science.“The Rosalind Franklin Papers.”
  • Peter J.F. Harris. “Rosalind Franklin’s work on coal, carbon and graphite.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 2001.
  • Lynne Elkin. “Rosalind Elsie Franklin,” Jewish Women’s Archive.