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Rosalind Franklin, the Pioneer Molecular Biologist

This article is part of our celebration of Women’s History Month where we feature stories of remarkable women who have shaped our world. In this article, we give tribute to Rosalind Franklin, best known for providing key insights into DNA structure.

Rosalind Franklin
25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958
Profession: Chemist

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a British chemist whose x-ray diffraction studies helped confirm the double helix structure of DNA. She also made important contributions to coal chemistry and virus research, despite her career being cut short by her death at the age of 38.

As a child, Franklin excelled in math and science and had a talent for learning languages. One of five children, she attended St. Paul’s Girls School in London. Throughout her life, she loved to hike and travel, living for several years in France and visiting the United States for conferences and collaborative visits. While studying for her BA and PhD during World War II, Franklin also served as an air raid warden.

She received her BA in Physical Chemistry in 1941 from Cambridge and then pursued a year of research in a photochemistry laboratory. In 1942, she began work with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA) where she was able to perform doctoral research on carbon and coal. She received her doctorate in Physical Chemistry from Cambridge in 1945.

After the war, Franklin moved to Paris to work in the laboratory of Jacques Mering. She thrived in this collaborative and egalitarian environment. In Paris, she also began to analyze carbons through x-ray diffraction analysis. Franklin returned to England in 1950 to work in John T. Randall’s biophysics unit at King’s College London. By early 1953, she had determined via her photographs that DNA were two-chain helices in structure. Her fellow scientists who viewed her work before publishing on the “double helix” did not fully acknowledge her contributions and were later awarded a Nobel Prize.

In 1953, Franklin transferred to work at Birkbeck College where she took x-ray diffraction photographs of plant viruses and furthered the research of viruses’ genetic structures, especially the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956, Franklin continued to work while she underwent treatment and in periods of remission. She secured a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and planned a project to study polio. Franklin had so much more to contribute to our scientific understanding; unfortunately, she passed away in 1958, cutting short a brilliant life and career.

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