On 28 February 1953, Francis Crick walked into The Eagle pub in Cambridge with his colleague James Watson and made the grand announcement “we have discovered the secret of life”. They were referring to having finally determined the structure of DNA and this led to a continuing controversy in the scientific world. Below we will discover the part played by Rosalind Franklin, a woman scientist whose world-changing work was only recognised years after her untimely death.
An exceptional start
Rosalind Franklin was born on July 25 1920 in Notting Hill, London, the eldest of five children in a wealthy Jewish family. Her family were involved in helping Jewish refugees who had fled from Europe. She did really well at school in almost all subjects. The exception was music where she performed so poorly her teacher suggested she may have a hearing loss!
In 1938 Rosalind went to Cambridge to study Chemistry. She had won a scholarship, but her father asked her to give it to a deserving refugee rather than keep it herself. She successfully completed the course in 1941, but this was at a time when Cambridge did not award degrees to women and it wasn’t until 1947 that she formally received her Batchelor of Science degree. That, however, didn’t hold her back, as she was awarded a research fellowship at Cambridge, did a stint at the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she obtained her PhD and after the war went to work in Paris.
Learning new skills
In Paris, she worked with Jacques Mering who was an X-ray crystallographer. Using the technique known as X-ray diffraction, X-rays are aimed at a crystalline structure, they hit the individual atoms and are diverted or reflected, thus creating an X-ray pattern which can be detected on a photographic plate and used to determine the position of the atoms within the structure. Mering taught Rosalind the practical aspects of the process and she quickly became an expert in getting the best pictures.
Tensions in London
In 1951, Rosalind returned to London to a post at King’s College, where she was the only researcher experienced in X-ray diffraction. Her focus was soon shifted to use these techniques on biological materials where the race was on to discover the structure of DNA. DNA had previously been postulated to hold all the genetic information for cell growth and maintenance, but to understand how it did this, it was necessary to work out its structure.
Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling had been carrying out X-ray diffraction analysis of DNA in the unit since May 1950, and unknown to Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind was asked to take over both the DNA diffraction work and guidance of Raymond Gosling’s thesis. Maurice Wilkins was still nominally her boss, but this lack of clear reporting channels must have gone some way to sour relationships. Rosalind applied herself to the problem and using more sensitive equipment and her expertise in sample preparation, she was able to improve the definition of the photographs obtained. She concluded that part of the structure seemed to be helical and presented this at a lecture in November 1951, in King’s College London. Ironically, James Watson was in the audience. And had he taken her more seriously and listened intently he and Francis Crick would have reached their conclusion at least a year earlier. But at this time science – and academia – were very much male dominated. James Watson referred to her as “Rosy”, a diminutive name she never used herself. In his book, The Double Helix, says “There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents,”. Rosalind was seen as prickly and unapproachable which led James Watson to write “Rosy had to go or be put in her place.” !
Raymond Gosling and Rosalind continued to work on improving the photographs and in May of 1952 she used a 62-hour exposure to produce what is now known as Photograph 51, said to be the most important X-ray photograph ever produced. It was placed in a drawer for future analysis and there it stayed until Maurice Wilkins showed it to James Watson. It was the final piece in the jigsaw which he and Francis Crick had been working on and with this evidence they realised the DNA structure was a double helix. And herein starts the controversy. Was Maurice Wilkins entitled to show the photograph without Rosalind’s knowledge and certainly without her permission? Cases are made for and against but either way Crick and Watson went on to publish their findings without acknowledging the vital contribution of Rosalind Franklin and, with Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, effectively writing her out of the story.
Rosalind Franklin’s life and works were brought to a tragic end when she died in 1958, aged only 37, of ovarian cancer – possibly related to her work with radiation. This means it was not possible to include her in the Nobel Prize award as it is never awarded posthumously. Since then, however, there have been many efforts to give her the recognition so rightly deserved and many of these you can see with a London Blue Badge Guide:
- Blue Plaque at her home in Donovan Court, South Kensington
- Wall graphics at King’s College on the Strand
- Plaque in Somerset House
- Heroes’ Wall at West Dulwich Station
- Grave in Willesden Jewish Cemetery
In addition, Google honoured her with a 2013 Google doodle and the Royal Mint issued a coin in 2020 to mark the centenary of her birth. King’s College London had also planned an exhibition to make this anniversary but have postponed it because of the current pandemic. This will be a must for those who want to learn more about this remarkable woman, so lookout for it!
And where does Nicole Kidman fit into this chain? She played, to great acclaim, Rosalind Franklin in the London production of Photograph 51, a play by Anna Zeigler which was yet another way of setting the record straight on Rosalind’s great achievements.
Featured image: Copyright Robin Stott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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