In an age when women were decades away from the second wave of feminism and a complete rarity in science, British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) conducted a series of seminal X-ray diffraction studies that would lead to the groundbreaking discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.
When Franklin first started working as a research assistant at the biophysics laboratory at London’s King College in 1951, there was only one other female scientist on the staff. Working with Raymond Gosling, one of the Ph.D. students assigned to help her, she applied her mastery of X-ray diffraction techniques to decoding the structure of DNA, but conflict in the scientific community was quick to take hold. Over the next few years, as the research was gathering momentum, so was the friction. In early 1953, Francis Crick and James D. Watson of at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory gained access to Franklin’s data without her consent — most notably, the famous Photo 51 — thanks to Maurice Wilkins, her chief rival at King’s, and used it to enhance their own existing research.
So antagonistic was Wilkins’s attitude toward Franklin that in March of 1953, he announced her departure from the lab in a private letter to his friend Crick:
Our dark lady is leaving us next week.
The following month, the prestigious scientific journal Nature published an article proclaiming Francis and Crick’s discovery of DNA’s double helix. In it, they made an intentionally oblique reference to Franklin’s work, the core armature of the very work they were claiming as their own:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, shortly before her 37th birthday. Despite her pioneering contribution to science, she was never nominated for a Nobel Prize, which wasn’t being awarded posthumous at the time. Her death thus made her ineligible for the 1962 Nobel Prize, which was eventually awarded to Watson, Wilkins, and Crick.
In his 1968 autobiographical account, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson repeatedly belittles Franklin’s work. But a recently released illustrated and expanded edition shines new light on some of the controversies.
In lieu of formal recognition on par with the scale of her work’s influence, Franklin’s greatest legacy is perhaps her ethos and her unwavering faith in the power of science as a force of social good. In 1940, barely 20, Franklin wrote in a letter to her father, Ellis:
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.
Brenda Maddox eloquently captures the essence of Franklin’s spirit in Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA:
She did not find life easy — as a woman, as a Jew, as a scientist. … The measure of her success lies in the strength of her friendships, the devotion of her colleagues, the vitality of her letters and a legacy of discovery that would do credit to a scientific career twice its length.
Learn more: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA | Rosalind Franklin