Rosalind Franklin: Discovery of DNA


-       Rosalind Franklin helped discover the secrets of DNA - the building blocks of all life!

-       She wanted to be a scientist from an early age and studied in Cambridge during World War Two.

-       Rosalind was continually sidelined by her male colleagues and died before they were given the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

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Have you heard of Rosalind Franklin? Neither have a lot of people! But she had an important role in the discovery of DNA - the building blocks for all living beings. Franklin’s work was instrumental in pointing scientists James Watson and Francis Crick in the right direction. Using X-Rays Franklin took pictures of DNA that changed our understanding of biology. .Unfortunately Rosalind Franklin’s story and contribution to science has been unfairly been eclipsed in the history books by men such as Wilkins, Watson and Crick.

Ever since she was a child, Rosalind had a very logical and determined mind. She hated dolls and any game that would involve pretending. She loved practical activities like Meccano and carpentry, which she learned from her brothers. Already in primary school, she knew she would be a scientist.

Frankiln grew up in Notting Hill in London and attended St Paul’s Girl’s School. She was accepted into Newnham College at the University of Cambridge in 1938. One year later the Second World War started. Although Cambridge was a relatively safe city during this time it was still a frightening experience! In a letter to her family, Rosalind wrote:

“Thank you for the gas mask – she wrote in October 1939 – we still don’t have to wear them, but we spend hours in the trenches every time there is a warning”

During her time in Cambridge Franklin made friends with Adrienne Weil, the student of prominent scientist Marie Curie who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. This friendship led Franklin to continue her research in Paris and improve her skills as a crystallographer - a person who studies the structure of molecules and atoms, the smallest things in the universe!

Although she loved her life in the Paris, in 1951 she decided to move back to London to work in a new laboratory at King’s College. But it was at times a difficult experience for Rosalind. Women were not allowed in certain parts of the university. Her research partner, Maurice Wilkins, treated her like an assistant rather than the head of her own project. It was a very different environment, with more discrimination, than she experienced in France.

Using sophisticated X-Ray techniques Franklin made a series of crucial discoveries. Amongst other discoveries she proved that phosphates (the ‘backbone’ of DNA) were on the outside of the DNA structure, rather than on the inside as most other biologists thought at the time.

Without Franklin’s knowledge, Wilkins showed her picture of DNA, known as Photo 51, to colleagues Watson and Crick,  Crick and Watson published their work before Franklin, and had their findings published as the main article in the journal Nature with Franklin’s work a mere accompaniment.

For their work on DNA Watson, Crick and Wilkins all received the prestigious Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 . But Franklin died of cancer four years before the award was handed out at the relatively young age of 37, possibly due to her exposure to X-Rays.

Although Rosalind Franklin did not receive the Nobel Prize it is important to recognise the importance of her work. In a letter to an undergraduate student before her death, Franklin wrote to a student: “My main aim is to do my best to improve the lot of mankind, present and future”. Through her significant research on the building blocks of life she undoubtedly achieved her life’s goal. 

more info about Rosalind Frankline's life & achievements:

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. Although she died of cancer when she was only 37, in her brief life she was able to achieve extraordinary results. In particular, her research on x-ray crystallography allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to understand the structure of DNA, the molecule that hold the instructions for the development of all living beings.

Since she was a child, Rosalind had a very logical and determined mind. She hated dolls and any game that would involve pretending. She loved Meccano and carpentry, which she learned from her brothers. Her mother wrote that “even as a tiny child, she could never accept a belief or statement for which no reason or proof could be produced”. Already in primary school, she knew she would be a scientist.

After studying at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, in 1938 Rosalind was accepted at Newnham College. Although she always kept fond memories of her university years, it was a terrible moment in the lives of millions of people. War World II started one year later, and even from the protected world of Cambridge academia that experience deeply shook Rosalind. She mentioned the conflict in all the letters to her family. “Thank you for the gas mask – she wrote in October 1939 – we still don’t have to wear them, but we spend hours in the trenches every time there is a warning”. And in 1941: “The whole town is an excellent military objective, as there are RAF lorries and camouflaged charabancs everywhere”.

While at Newnham, she became close friend with Adrienne Weil, a pupil of Marie Curie who had fled from France and was a refugee in Cambridge. Thanks to Adrienne, right after the war she accepted a position as crystallographer in a governmental laboratory in Paris, where she stayed for four years.

Although she loved her life in the French capital, in 1951 she decided to move back to London to work in the new biophysical laboratory at King’s College. Her experience there was double faceted. On the one hand, she absolutely hated the working condition and the people. Women were not allowed in the MCR, a fundamental place to exchange ideas and information with the colleagues; her research partner, Maurice Wilkins, treated her like an assistant. Especially after the freedom and the positive atmosphere enjoyed in France, she could not accept such a discriminatory situation.

On the other hand though, the work she did at King’s College was the most important of her life. Here she started her investigation on the nature of the structure of nucleic acid, developing a new technique for taking X-ray pictures which showed that the structure of the DNA was best accounted for by a double spiral.

However, she was never fully aware of the importance of her research to the work of Watson and Crick. As a result of the awful atmosphere at King’s, Wilkins showed her photographs and reports to Watson and Crick without telling her. In March 1953, one month before the publications of her results on “Nature” alongside an article on DNA structure by Watson and Crick, she decided to move to Birbeck College. The laboratory consisted of a small room at the top of an old-fashioned house, with rain dripping through the roof and no lift; but the colleagues were much nicer and she really enjoyed her time there, especially her work on the polio virus. The mother remembers her carrying small thermos flasks into the kitchen at home, calling out loud “you’ll never guess what is in there – live polio!”.

She did not have any recognition for her work at King’s College while alive. When her article was published, “it was a momentous spring – remembers Matt Ridley – Everest climbed, Stalin dead, Playboy born. But the biggest event of all, life solved, caused barely a ripple”. Indeed, at the time no one outside the academic circle was paying any attention to Franklin’s or Watson and Crick’s work on DNA.

In 1956 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; it is probable that the long exposition to x-ray radiation is a relevant cause for her disease. She died on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37. Had she lived, many say she would have also been awarded the Nobel Prize for the discoveries on DNA, just like Watson and Crick in 1962. Ironically, when she finished her studies at Cambridge she did not even receive a degree, because women were not accepted as full members of the University until 1948.

In any case, despite the little time, Rosalind was able to accomplish her mission in life. She continued to work and travel until the end, hoping that her work would be useful to her battle against cancer, although it was too late for her. In one of her letters as an undergraduate, she wrote: “My main aim is to do my best to improve the lot of mankind, present and future”.

She surely did so, by providing a fundamental piece to understand the puzzle of the origins of life.


 Excerpt from one of Rosalind’s letters (photo available at Newnham College Library)

“Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment. Your theories are those which you and many other people find easiest and pleasantest to believe, but, so far as I can see, thet have no foundation other than that they lead to a pleasant view of life (and and exaggerated idea of our own importance) […] I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world […] your faith rests on the future of yourself and others as individuals, mine on the future and fate of our successes. It seems to me that yours is the more selfish”

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Newnham College

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CBBC Programme About Rosalind Franklin and DNA

Rosalind Franklin: Discovery of DNA


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