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Remembering Rosalind Franklin

July 25th 2021 marks the 101st birthday of Rosalind Elsie Franklin, a British chemist best known for her contributions to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA and for laying the foundation for the field of structural virology. Franklin knew by the mere age of 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. Her father actively discouraged her interest since it was very difficult for women to have such a career back then. However, thanks to her high intelligence and excellent education from St. Paul’s Girls’ School (which was one of the few institutions at that time which offered science subjects to girls), she finished her schooling with flying colours and entered Cambridge University in 1938 to major in chemistry.


 

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.

- Rosalind Franklin, in a letter to her father, summer 1940.

 

After graduation, Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to pursue her graduate research under R.G.W Norrish. Norrish recognized Franklin’s potential, but was not very supportive towards his female scholar. The lack of a conducive work environment in his lab made Franklin accept a position as an officer at Britain’s Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA). The organization was liberal in the way research could be done, so Franklin worked independently, which suited her well. Franklin worked for the CURA till 1947 and during her time there, she researched extensively and published multiple papers on the physical structure of coal.

After her time at CURA, Franklin was introduced to Marcel Mathieu, who directed most of the research in France. He was highly impressed by Franklin’s work, which made him offer her a job as a “Chercheur” in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. Under the guidance of Jacques Mering, she learnt X-ray diffraction techniques and undertook a research position at King’s College in 1951 to improve the X-ray crystallography unit with her newly acquired knowledge from Paris.

With the help of her student, Raymond Gosling, Franklin obtained two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibres. She utilised two different fibres of DNA, out of which one was more highly hydrated than the other. From this experimental output, she inferred the basic dimensions of the DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of a helical structure. She presented her findings at a conference in King’s College, where James Watson was present. Franklin never collaborated with Watson and Crick- it was her colleague Maurice Wilkins who showed them the data obtained by Franklin without her consent. The data helped confirm the 3D structure that was theorised by Watson and Crick for DNA. In 1953, both Wilkins and Franklin published articles on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue with Watson and Crick’s research on the structure of DNA.


Franklin’s X-ray diagram of the B form of sodium thymonucleate (DNA) fibres, published in Nature on 25 April 1953, shows the features characteristic of helical structures.

Subsequently, Franklin left Cambridge and moved on to Birkbeck lab where she worked on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus. Soon after she started her new position, Franklin was diagnosed with cancer. However, this did not stand in the way of her publishing numerous papers. Unfortunately, Franklin passed away due to cancer in 1958.

Even after half a century, many believe that Rosalind Franklin still does not get the recognition she deserves for her role in the discovery of DNA. According to various scientists, even though Rosalind passed away at the tender age of 37, she has packed at least two lifetime’s worth of high-quality science into her career. However, throughout her career, Franklin experienced sexism in science first hand. She protested against her lower pay, lack of promotion and the politics that took place in her organization. On this day, let’s do our part to ensure that the legacy of Franklin is not forgotten. - written by Nithin Senthil





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