“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” This is a quote from Dr. Rosalind Elsie Franklin who was pictured in the July 25, 2013 Google Doodle on the anniversary of what would have been her 93rd birthday. It highlighted the fact that she took an x-ray picture of DNA, Photo 51, which helped lead to the Nobel Peace prize for three men in 1964.
Rosalind Franklin was a research associate in John Randall’s laboratory at London’s King’s College in 1952 studying DNA. Maurice Wilkins was also studying DNA there and showed her NDA image without her knowledge to James Watson and Francis Crick, both at Cambridge University. They used her images to publish their findings in March 1953 and one month later in Nature, they acknowledged her work in a footnote.
As a crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin took the famous 100-hour exposure Photo 51 which clearly revealed the double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid. Researchers can determine molecular structure using X-ray diffraction by bombarding a sample of a crystal mounted inside a camera with x-ray beams. The rays diffracted by electrons in the atoms produce on a photographic plate a spots pattern whose density and location can be analyzed to find the crystal’s atoms’ arrangements and size of the unit cell, or basic repeating structure. Franklin made hugely important contributions to understanding DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite fine molecular structures. Brenda Maddox wrote Franklin’s biography, The Dark Lady of DNA.
It is notable that Franklin first wanted to find a research position in 1942, which was unlikely
since routinely men with science training were drafted for research, but rarely women. She was lucky to become Assistant Research Officer with the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA), and spent the war years researching coal production, distribution, and use, strategic for special charcoal filters in devices like gas masks. Her expertise in classifying coal and its performance earned her a PhD from Cambridge in 1945.
When Dr. Franklin died at age 37 of ovarian cancer in 1958, she was researching the polio virus. Wilkins, Watson and Crick received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, four years after Franklin’s death. Since the Nobel prize is not awarded posthumously, it will never be known if Franklin would have been included in the prize. She did receive the Honorary Horwitz Prize
for her DNA work. According to the Guardian, “Crick later acknowledged that Franklin’s images were ‘the data we actually used’ to formulate their 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA.”
There is a college of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois named after her. One of the projects there led by Dr.Inis Bardella, Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Global Health Initiatives is an effort of the entire school to “reduce morbidity and mortality in underserved populations, both in the US and globally,” to meet world health needs of especially the poor. They are partnering with groups like Hope of Children in Uganda, Heartland Alliance, and a medical school in Mexico for education, research and clinical care globally. Dr. Franklin would be pleased for as she said, “..by doing our best we shall succeed in our aims: the improvement of mankind.”