Rosalind Elsie Franklin: Extraordinary pioneer of scientific research

By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mar 18, 2021 07:15 PM IST

This chemist and X-ray crystallographer’s work is integral to the study of molecular structures of DNA, RNA, coal and graphite.

Born in London on July 25, 1920 in an affluent and influential British Jewish family, Rosalind was the daughter of Ellis Arthur Franklin, a politically liberal London merchant banker who also taught at Working Men’s College, and Muriel Frances Waley.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin greatly contributed to research in structural virology.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin greatly contributed to research in structural virology.

Academic pursuits

At age six, she joined her brother Roland at Norland Place School, a private day school in West London. Three years later, she entered a boarding school, the Lindores School for Young Ladies, in Sussex.

Franklin attended the St. Paul’s Girls’ School before she went to Newnham College, Cambridge in 1938 and studied chemistry within the Natural Sciences Tripos. The advance of World War II changed her course of action: not only did she serve as a London air raid warden, but in 1942 gave up her fellowship in order to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she investigated the physical chemistry of carbon and coal for the war effort. She was able to use this research for her doctoral thesis, and in 1945 received a doctorate from Cambridge.

From 1947 to 1950, she worked with Jacques Mering at the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris, studying X-ray diffraction technology.


In 1951, Franklin joined the Biophysical Laboratory at King’s College, London, as a research fellow. She applied X-ray diffraction methods to the study of DNA. When she took up research at King’s College, very little was known about the chemical makeup or structure of DNA. However, she soon discovered the density of DNA and, more importantly, established that the molecule existed in a helical conformation. Her work to make clearer X-ray patterns of DNA molecules and laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick to suggest in 1953 that the structure of DNA is a double-helix polymer, a spiral consisting of two DNA strands wound around each other.

From 1953 to 1958, she worked in the Crystallography Laboratory at Birkbeck College, London. While there she completed work on coal and on DNA and began a project on the molecular structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. She collaborated on studies showing that the ribonucleic acid (RNA) in that virus was embedded in its protein rather than in its central cavity and that the RNA was a single-strand helix, rather than the double helix found in the DNA of bacterial viruses and higher organisms.

Personal life

Though best described as an agnostic, Franklin did not abandon her Jewish traditions. As the only Jewish student at Lindores School, she attended Hebrew lessons when friends went to church. Her closest personal affair was probably with her once post-doctoral student Donald Caspar. In 1956, she visited his home in Colorado after her tour to University of California, Berkeley, and was known to have said later that Caspar was one “she might have loved, might have married”. In her letter to her American friend Annie Sayre, she described him as “an ideal match”.

In mid-1956, while on a trip to the United States, Franklin first began to suspect a health problem. Even while undergoing cancer treatment, Franklin continued to work, and her group continued to produce results – seven papers in 1956 and six more in 1957. She fell ill again on March 30, and she died on April 16, 1958, in London, of bronchopneumonia, secondary carcinomatosis and ovarian cancer.

Interesting Facts

Rosalind Franklin gave a lecture at the seminar in November 1951 during which she presented the two forms of the molecule, type A and type B. She stated that the phosphate units are located in the external part of the molecule. Franklin was the first person to discover and formulate these facts, which constituted the basis for all the later attempts to build a model of the molecule.

Franklin loved travelling abroad, particularly trekking. She trekked the French Alps with Jean Kerslake in 1946, which almost cost her her life. She slipped off a slope and was barely rescued.

In 1956, she visited the University of California and tried deciphering the structure of the polio virus while it was in a crystalline state but was forced to end her work due to herrapidly failing health.

She studied the porosity of coal. using helium to determine its density. She helped classify coals and accurately predict their performance for fuel purposes and production of wartime devices — gas masks.

Source: Wikipedia,

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