A giant of scientific history, it would be remiss to let the birthday of Rosalind Franklin go unmarked. Born in 1920 to a prominent Jewish family, Franklin excelled in science from a young age, and in 1938 was accepted to a place to study chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge.
Franklin would soon go on to join Kings College London as a research associate in the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit. Because of her expertise in crystallography and X-ray diffraction, Franklin was assigned to work on a particularly interesting and mysterious molecule: DNA.
Franklin joined a team who had had some success in creating a diffraction image of DNA. Together with Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling, Franklin succeeded in uncovering more about the structure and composition of DNA. Her great breakthrough came in 1953, with a diffraction image known as Photo 51.
When a crystallised sample is exposed to X-ray light, the atoms inside the sample diffract the light in different directions. The pattern of light and dark spots that is produced from this diffraction can be used to work out the atomic structure of the sample.
Franklin’s Photo 51 provided a clear rendering of the atomic structure of DNA. However, prior to its being published, Wilkins shared the photograph with another DNA researcher, Francis Crick. With its brilliant resolution and intense detail, Photo 51 provided Crick, and his collaborator James Watson, with significant information on the structure of DNA.
It was only weeks later that Watson and Crick announced that they had solved the structure of the double helix and pinned down DNA, the building block of life. Franklin was only very vaguely mentioned in the original paper Watson and Crick published on the structure of DNA, an omission that has since been much scrutinised.
Franklin went on to do vital research into the structure of RNA: the molecule that makes up the genome of many viruses. However, she was beset by illness in 1956 and finally died from ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins three years later in 1962.
The significance of Franklin’s work has been posthumously recognised, and she is now remembered as one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. A true heroine from history, Franklin’s work transformed the way we understood the genetic makeup of life. It is with great respect that we mark her birthday and remember all that she gave to science throughout her short life.