Rosalind Franklin: The unsung hero of the DNA double helix

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Our understanding of DNA, especially the double helix structure of the strand of DNA has revolutionized and transformed our approach towards living beings and medicine.

Scientists James Watson and Francis Crick are credited for this ground-breaking discovery for which they later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962. But their story often fails to acknowledge the contribution of a third scientist – Rosalind Franklin. She was the English chemist and crystallographer whose measurements and calculations played an essential part in the discovery. Unfortunately, she died before the prize was awarded. However, the philosophical and scientific importance of her work still echoes today.

Crystal gazing

She was born in London to an eminent British Jewish family on 25 July 1920. At the age of 15, she was determined that she wanted to become a scientist, in spite of her father opposing and discouraging her because of difficulties that women face in such career at that time.

Yet, she went on to study chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge. There she worked in several scientific research positions. In 1947, she became X-ray crystallography ( It is a technique to elucidate the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal by measuring the diffracted X-ray beams) researcher in Paris. She got the scholarship at the King’s College, London and she returned back to England in 1951. Her initial plan was to carry out X-ray diffraction studies of proteins, however, after Maurice Wilkins, who was the assistant director of the King’s biophysics lab, was able to secure a pure sample of DNA from calf thymus, her team shifted to carry out the crystallographic studies of this sample.

Franklin along with a graduate student Raymond Gosling analysed and photographed these samples of DNA. They took a ground-breaking photo of DNA in May 1952 and labelled it as #51. This was the clearest diffraction image of DNA and its helical pattern at that time.

It was this photo which inspired Watson and Crick to let go of their idea of the three-helix structure of DNA and make the necessary calculation to develop the double helix model, which is today known as the ‘Watson and Crick Model for Double Helix Structure of DNA.’

Crisis of credit

The results of Franklin’s research were passed to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. It was Wilkins who had shared the detailed observations of ‘Photo 51’ with them and they included them to the report they submitted at the Cambridge University.

Franklin had been working with Gosling on the same double-helix structure of DNA but by the time they published their findings, Watson and Crick had already become the hero of the scientific community.

In ‘The Double Helix’ that is the memoir of Watson; he has acknowledged that fact that he used Franklin’s data without her permission.  However, Franklin never expressed any bitterness about this issue and readily accepted their model. Unfortunately, she lost her life at a tragically young age of 37 to ovarian cancer.  Watson later said had she lived longer, she would definitely have been awarded a Nobel Prize for her contributions to the elucidation of the structure of DNA; Watson and Crick were awarded the prize in 1962 for the same.

Her crucial work in the discovery of the structure of DNA has ensured her own scientific immortality. The value of her contributions to the discovery of double helix structure will last as long as humanity.

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