By the year 1952, much was known about the DNA molecule, including its exclusive role as a genetic material capable of storing nearly all the genetic information required to create a living being. The fact that was not known at that time was how the DNA molecule looked like, or how it managed to perform that amazing and enigmatic heritable function. The double helical DNA structure that is familiar to all of us now was discovered in 1953. The scientists, most commonly associated with this remarkable accomplishment, are: James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, however there was one other person whose truly essential contribution to crucial this discovery of the DNA’s structure could not and was not recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1962. That person who always stayed behind the scene was Rosalind Franklin. (Lightman)
During and after her life Rosalind Franklin was surrounded by much controversy concerning her life and work as well. Being a great and highly talented scientist, Franklin was responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA. Her photographs of DNA were called “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,” but as unfair as it is, Rosalind Franklin never received any credit for the fundamental role she played (McGrayne)
As a woman and a Jew, Franklin had always felt unwelcomed and underestimated. The combination of anti-Semitism and sexism also was a basic factor in some criticism of her work as well as her personality and life style, clothes and way of talking and expressing her opinions. In James Watson’s book, The Double Helix, Franklin is described as a difficult stiff woman who “was unwilling to share her research”, however the book does not describe how smart, professional and creative Rosalind Franklin was. (Watson)
The significance of Rosalind Franklin’s role has been brought to light and widely recognized only some time after her death. She finally got the condign recognition largely due to the efforts of feminist individuals such as Anne Colquhoun Sayer, who published Rosalind Franklin and DNA in 1975. Moreover, Franklin’s case turned to be an important example in the study of sexism in science, as well as scientific ethics, and the sociology and psychology of science.
Franklin carried out the DNA project that she thought was her own. However, soon after starting working with Maurice Wilkins Franklin realized that he preferred her to be his assistant and not a full-right working as equal partner. They had a very uneasy relationship, complicated by the fact she was a woman in a “man’s world”, as well as by their conflicting and contrary personalities. (Doyl, Goldman) Closer to the end of the research when all four scientists felt they were getting closer to the answer, Franklin’s secret research information was, with Wilkins’s help passed to Watson and Crick. Rosalind Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick had gotten access to her results. At the time of the Watson and Crick publication and afterwards, Franklin seemed not to have been bitter about their research accomplishments. In her own publications about DNA structure, she agreed with their “essential conclusions but remained skeptical about some details of their model.” Instead of confronting Wilkins, Watson and Crick, Franklin moved on to an even more challenging problem: the structure of an entire virus, called the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. (Maddox)Such an approach of the situation proved Rosalind once again to be a woman or high dignity.
Although being short, life of Rosalind Franklin was very rich and successful, but how did everything begin? A future outstanding scientist, Rosalind Elsie Franklin, was born on July 25, 1920 in a prosperous Jewish religious family, to Ellis Franklin and Muriel Franklin (nee Waley). Her family was rather well-off because her father was a prominent banker. Her family was active in community service and enjoyed some religious activities. As a child, she never felt like she was understood, she could not stand pretend games and did not play with dolls, Rosalind was eager to find the facts behind everything before she believed. (McGrayne) Rosalind attended the St Paul’s Girls’ School, that at that time was one of the few girl’s school in London where the profound knowledge of sciences was given. At school Franklin was one of the brightest students and even at early age started showing interest and great abilities for science.
She faced the first obstacles when she announced to her family she wanted to be a scientist, being religious her father did not like her decision of course, as he was not in favor of higher education for women, he was of the view that women’s destiny was to get married, have and raise children and do charitable work. However after being persuaded by other family members Franklin’s father relented and let Rosalind take her chosen path.
She started attending a college of her choice – Newnham College in Cambridge, from where she graduated with a BA in 1941. After getting a research scholarship from Newnham, she took up doing her own research work for her PhD degree under the guidance of Ronald George Wreyford Norrish (1897-1978). However, she did not work for too long because the Second World War was in progress and Rosalind Franklin was eager to take her possible part in the common war effort, so in 1942 she chose to join the staff of the British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA) as Assistant Research Officer. Based on working in CURA Franklin obtained a PhD degree of the Cambridge University in 1945.
In 1947 Franklin moved to the “Laboratorie Centrale des Services Chimique de L’Etat” in Paris. That was when she learned about X-ray diffraction, at that time it was considered as a rather new and promising technology. When Franklin took up X-ray diffraction work, the subject was little more than 30 years old and it was expanding very rapidly at that time. She quickly proved to be highly professional and an experienced in creating and analyzing the photographs and x-rays of various biological molecules. While in Paris she mostly worked with Jacques Mering, publishing a series of important papers on graphitising and non-graphitising carbons. (The Great Experimentalist Scientist)
When she returned to England in 1951, she undertook the study of the structure of crystalline deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) as a research associate in biophysics at King’s College in London. Franklin applied the x-ray crystallographic methods that she had learned and perfected in Paris to the DNA structure problem and invented new original techniques for “the application of x-ray crystallography that could be applied specifically to this type of study.” (The Great Experimentalist Scientist) She proved that the phosphate sugar groups were located on the outer part instead of inner part of DNA and was continuing her ongoing analysis of x-ray photographs of DNA crystals and molecules trying to learn more about its structure.
In 1953, Franklin started working at the laboratory of crystallographer J.D. Bernal at Birkbeck College in London where her succeeding studies of DNA provided additional support for the already presumptive DNA molecule structure. She also undertook the determination of the structure of plant viruses, especially tobacco mosaic virus that she studied very precisely. She demonstrated a single-stranded helical structure for the ribonucleic acid in this virus. She was studying and developing the live poliovirus structure when she died of the ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958. (Bernal)
Watson, Crick, and Wilkins went on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1962. “Given the fact that this award cannot be awarded posthumously, Rosalind was not even in the running.” (McGrayne). But it is a matter of question if she would have been considered if she was alive or not… Nobody knows the answer to this question, but few realists think that she would have. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins Nobel lectures cited ninety-eight references, but Franklin was not even cited among them…(McGrayne) While she did deserve and still deserves it, Watson and Crick never even acknowledged her contributions. In Watson’s book, The Double Helix, he was honest and brave enough to admit the stealing of Rosalind’s data, but this is the closest he got to the recognition of her input to the developing of DNA structure and professional talent (McGrayne, 1993).
Rosalind Franklin was one of a kind, brilliant, unusual, active…this list can be gone and gone on for hours. She tirelessly light up trails with her intelligence, devotion to the highest professional standards in research, thoughtful apprenticeship, loyalty to friends, family and colleagues, as well as deep commitment to social justice.
Without a shadow of doubt, it is not too late to Rosalind’s her records and achievements straight. It is not only important but simply vital from a historical point of view to recognize Rosalind Franklin’s enormous contribution to the revolutionary discovery of DNA, not only because of its objective truth, but also in order to set an example for all present and future female students and scientists who still face some particular obstacles. If Rosalind Franklin had been given the proper recognition for her part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, science classes today would properly refer to Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, who, together, deserve recognition for the revolutionary discovery of the DNA molecule structure.
The Great Experimentalist Scientist http://www.vigyanprasar.gov.in/scientists/REFranklin.html. Rosalind Elsie Franklin
McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch, Nobel Prize Women in Science, Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 1993.
Maddox, Brenda, Rosalidn Franklin : Dark Lady of DNA, London & New York : Harper Collins, 2002.
Watson, J. D., The Double Helix, New York, Anthaeum, 1968.
http://www.accessexcellence.org/RC/AB/BC/Rosalind_Franklin.html Rosalind Franklin (Lightman, A. (2005), The Discoveries, Pantheon Books, New York. Pp. 356 – 379.)
Doyle, John, A story of bias transcends the world of science, globeandmail.com, (April 22, 2003); Goldman, Julia, The (Jewish) Mother Of DNA, The Jewish Week, (April 18, 2003);
Bernal, J.D., Dr. Rosalind E. Franklin, Nature Journal, v.n. 186, acronym 1958 N, July 19, 1958
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