Rosalind Franklin: Darkhorse in the discovery of the double helix

by Lexin Chen


Miss Franklin said ‘No, we all stand on each other’s shoulder’


The discovery of that DNA is a double helix marked as a milestone in scientific history because it gave rise to molecular biology, specifically gene sequencing, gene engineering, techniques in biotechnology, and much more [6]. This seemingly trivial knowledge may not be impressive, but without the understanding of the structure of DNA, heredity, and reproduction could not be understood [6]. Therefore, in the mid-20th century, a large amount of effort was directed toward this arduous topic. James Watson and Francis Crick published in Nature on their discovery that DNA is a double helix in 1953. Most students with some biology instruction must recall or recognize their names, but not many recognize the name, Rosalind Franklin. Rosalind Franklin would be the dark horse who holds the contributing piece to the DNA structure puzzle, yet today, she is still rarely recognized as the woman who discovered that DNA is a double helix.


Born in 1920 to a wealthy British Jewish family, Rosalind Franklin developed a passion for science at a young age and aspire to be a scientist [7]. Her aunt described her as “alarmingly clever and does arithmetic for pleasure” [8]. During the 1920s and 1930s, women’s dominant role in society remains inside the household. When she received a scholarship and admission to Cambridge University, a family crisis had erupted because her father disapproved of women in university and refused to pay. To him, women should be in philanthropy and public service and it was not until her aunt said that she would pay for it and urged her to continue her schooling that her parents gave in [1-2]. She stayed in Cambridge when World War II erupted and continued to pursue further education in a doctorate after her undergraduate studies. Her work revolved around a wartime problem: porosity and classification of coal; this later proves to be important to the design of effective gas masks [1-2]. She received her doctorate in chemistry when the war ended and later Franklin went on to France to learn about x-ray crystallography and applied the technique to coal and other carbonaceous materials to uncover their atomic structures [4,9].


After three years in France, Franklin set her eyes back in London, she received a fellowship to work in King’s College in London and her work focuses on uncovering the structure of DNA, assigned by John Randall. This topic was the point of contention during the period over the structure if it is a single, double, or triple helix. It was under her impression that this is solely her project and Randall assigned her a graduate student, Raymond Gosling. However, the other pioneering scientist that had been working on this project, Maurice Wilkins went out for vacation and when he came back, he thought Franklin was his assistant [10]. Therefore, there was a lot of tension between the two which stems from the miscommunication from Randall not letting Wilkins know that Franklin is taking over his work and Gosling’s thesis [1]. Furthermore, Wilkin and Franklin had very clashing personalities and this will lead to further tension and disputes.


Despite isolation from colleagues, Franklin remained focused on her work; she quickly upgraded the lab by refining the x-ray tube, microcamera, other lab specimens in the lab. Utilizing her expertise in X-ray crystallography, she obtained Photo 51 in 1952, which was the key to determine the structure of DNA. The time to produce the image required at least 100 hours and the time to analyze the image would require at least a year [11]. Wilkin, sour over the divide, went to work with his friends, Watson and Crick. Without Franklin’s permission, Wilkin showed Watson and Crick Photo 51; they deduce the double helix model and later published their studies [1]. At the same time, Franklin finished her calculations and published her studies. Watson and Crick, and Franklin published in the same issue of Nature in 1953. However, Watson and Crick’s publication came before Franklin so it gave the impression that Franklin’s studies only supported the Watson and Crick’s publication; when in reality, Franklin could have taken credit for uncovering the structure of DNA alone since it was her Photo 51 that paves the way for Watson and Crick’s publication [11]. In our imperfect world today, Watson and Crick get almost all the recognition and Franklin remains largely unknown for her significant contribution. Of course, a large portion of it resulted from her status as a female in a largely male-dominated profession.


Surrounded by a toxic work environment, Franklin decided to move on to Birkbeck College in 1953 [5]. There, she switched her focus on poliovirus. She went on to publish 17 papers in a span of five years, working up until her last days [1]. She had been suffering from ovarian cancer from this time and passed away in 1958 at the age of 37. In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was presented to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for their work on the determination of DNA as a double helix. Because Franklin had already passed away years ago, Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously [2]. Since Nobel Prize is the most prestigious prize in the scientific world, Franklin never got recognized for most of her meticulous work, when in fact she carried the most important weight in this discovery. In 1982, a Nobel Prize was presented to Aaron Klug, the successor of Franklin’s poliovirus work [1]. If Franklin lived long enough, she might have been able to be awarded two Nobel Prizes.

Franklin was a pioneer in the determination of the structure of DNA. She was a meticulous scientist with extraordinary talent and passion. In an interview with Gosling, Franklin’s graduate student in Kings College, he said after seeing the model in Crick’s lab, Miss


Franklin said ‘No, we all stand on each other’s shoulder’ [3]. This attitude of putting science before ego is truly admirable and despite societal oppression on women, Rosalind Franklin is a model displayed for the future generations that science can be for girls.




Works Cited

[1] A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Rosalind Franklin. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bofran.html

[2] Concept 19 The DNA molecule is shaped like a twisted ladder. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from http://www.dnaftb.org/19/bio-3.html

[3] JD. Watson, F., Maddox, .., RE. Franklin, R., MHF. Wilkins, A., James, W., WF. Doolittle, P., . . . Gosling, R. (1970, January 01). Raymond Gosling: The man who crystallized genes. Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://genomebiology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/gb-2013-14-4-402

[4] Rosalind Franklin. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.ukri.org/women-in-research-and-innovation1/gallery-of-pioneers/rosalind-franklin/

[5] Rosalind Franklin: A Crucial Contribution. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/rosalind-franklin-a-crucial-contribution-6538012/

[6] The Discovery of the Double Helix, 1951-1953 | Francis Crick - Profiles in Science. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/sc/feature/doublehelix

[7] Rosalind Franklin. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/rosalind-franklin

[8] Maddox, B. (2002). Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA (p. 15). New York: HarperCollins.

[9] "The Rosalind Franklin Papers: The Holes in Coal: Research at BCURA and in Paris, 1942–1951". Profiles.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 25 July 2013.

[10] Wilkins, M. (2005). The Third Man of the Double Helix: An Autobiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Incorporated.

[11] Rosalind Franklin: DNA's unsung hero - Cláudio L. Guerra. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2020, from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/rosalind-franklin-dna-s-unsung-hero-claudio-l-guerra

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