Chemistry Greats: Rosalind Franklin

by Joshua Nicks, PhD student. Originally published in issue nine of Resonance.

DNAIn 1962, the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” However, by their own admission, Watson and Crick could not have arrived at their model of DNA without X-ray crystallographic data obtained by one Rosalind Franklin. Though Franklin’s career, and possible Nobel recognition, were cut short by her untimely death in 1958, this article aims to demonstrate just how significant her discoveries were to chemistry as well as science as a whole.

Franklin was born in 1920, into a well-educated Jewish family. She attended St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, where she excelled at both physics and chemistry, propelling her to a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences – specialising in physical chemistry, at the University of Cambridge. There she undertook her PhD research, with her thesis, titled ‘the physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special relation to coal and related materials’ being completed in tandem with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association during the second world war. It is often overlooked that her proficiency in X-ray diffractometry techniques came as a result of her time spent as a post-doctoral researcher at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. Her work there focused on applying diffractometry to imperfectly crystalline materials – namely coal. The papers she published on this research continue to be cited today, and earned her a great deal of respect in the field.

Rosalind FranklinIn 1951, Franklin moved to King’s College London, where she worked on DNA for two years. She worked in the lab of John Randall, alongside Wilkins - though the two did not get on. Here, Franklin became the first to identify the two forms, dubbed A and B, in which DNA could exist. She elucidated these through painstaking crystallisation experiments, in which she would alter the degree of hydration of a tiny fibre of DNA to manipulate its dominant crystalline form. As a result, she was able to obtain A and B form diffractometric data, from which she determined DNA’s density, unit-cell size, and water content. This finally culminated in the proposition of a double-helix structure with complimentary strands. This data was a vital factor in Watson and Crick’s model, which would most likely not exist otherwise. This resulted in Watson and Crick’s model being published in Nature, alongside two papers written by Franklin and Wilkins (separately) which supported it.

Franklin did not fit in well at King’s, and chose to leave in 1951, moving to Birkbeck College. There, she began her work on RNA viruses, publishing 14 papers between 1955 and 1958 and becoming an expert in the topic. Her work ethic did not falter, with 13 of these papers having been published after her cancer diagnosis. Unfortunately, three others had to be submitted for publication by her students after her death in 1958. One of these students, Aaron Klug, went on to win the 1982 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy.

So there you have it, Franklin was an authority in physical chemistry and particularly diffractometry during her career. We cannot know whether her death stopped her from being awarded the Nobel Prize ahead of Wilkins. After all, sexist attitudes were ingrained in science at the time, and even today, few Nobel Prizes are awarded to women. However, what is undeniably true, is that the work of Rosalind Franklin has had a huge impact on our understanding of life, and her passion and dedication to chemistry is something we can all admire.

Read more from Resonance