Who Was Rosalind Franklin?

Rosalind Franklin, circa 1956. Courtesy of Jenifer Glynn. Provided to the U.S. National Library of Medicine
Rosalind Franklin, circa 1956. Courtesy of Jenifer Glynn. Provided to the U.S. National Library of Medicine

My first science-related post will provide you with a little context on the namesake of this blog: Rosalind Franklin.

For a decade after her death, Rosalind Franklin remained little known beyond the world of molecular biology. Then, in 1968, Watson published “The Double Helix,” his rambunctious, best-selling account of the race to solve the structure of DNA. In its pages, Rosalind Franklin becomes Rosy, a bluestocking virago who hoards her data, stubbornly misses their import, and occasionally threatens Watson and others with physical violence—but who might not be “totally uninteresting” if she “took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair.”

Rosalind Franklin was a scientist thought to be key to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, a finding which has long been credited to James Watson and Francis Crick. Before delving into this weighty issue, a small primer on DNA so that you can understand the importance of her work:

  • Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a complex molecule found in all living cells, composed of many smaller molecules called nucleotides.
  • Nucleotides are grouped into elements referred to as genes, which encode for instructions for physical traits, such as eye color, or activities at the cellular level or within the body.
  • Diversity between individuals can be explained by differences in arrangement of these nucleotides within genes.
  • During reproduction, some of each parents’ DNA is passed down to their children.
Double helix structure of DNA.
Double helix structure of DNA.
  • The famous double-stranded helix structure of DNA is actually important for its function:
    • Providing templates for new DNA during the production of new cells,
    • Providing stability for DNA within the cells, and
    • Allowing DNA to be packaged tightly to fit within a cell.
Rosalind Franklin's X-ray diffraction image of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction image of DNA.

At a young age, Rosalind was fascinated by physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Following the completion of her doctorate, Rosalind studied the theory of crystallography, an important concept underlying imaging at the molecular level. 

In 1951, Rosalind decided to transfer her knowledge of the “hard sciences” to biology, and accepted a position in a biophysics laboratory at King’s College in London to investigate the structure of DNA.

At the same time, other scientists were working on this issue. Linus Pauling had recently published his discovery that some proteins can take on a helical structure, and was moving on to investigating the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick were impressed by Pauling’s discovery, and were fascinated by the work being done at King’s College using X-ray crystallography to study the structure of DNA. As a result, they began their own experiments to see if they could be the first to solve the puzzle.

An intense bout of drama ensued, which I won’t get into here. Essentially, a colleague of Rosalind Franklin’s, Maurice Wilkins, showed one of her X-ray images to Watson and Crick; a move which has been deemed critical in their development of the now famous model.

While one cannot say she is the sole researcher responsible for this discovery, Rosalind Franklin was not properly credited either. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were all awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for this discovery.

Regardless of who proper credit should be awarded to, it is not questionable that the discovery of the DNA double helix structure lead to a revolution in biotechnology, allowing us to get a better understanding of life, disease, and medicine.

References:

1. What is DNA? Scitable by Nature Education. 2014. http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/introduction-what-is-dna-6579978 Accessed April 25, 2015.

2. Holt, J. Rosalind Franklin and the Great DNA Race. The New Yorker. October 28, 2002. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/10/28/photo-finish-2 Accessed April 25, 2015.

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