Born in London, England, Franklin showed exceptional scholastic abilities and by age 15, knew she wanted to be a scientist. She attended various schools including the Lindores School for Young Ladies, excelling in science; Lindores was one of the very few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry.
After studying chemistry and graduating from Newnham College, Cambridge, she was offered a research position from the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA). Her research in the coal industry earned her a PhD. She was sent to Paris to work with Jacques Mering, learned about X-ray diffraction, and became an accomplished X-ray crystallographer. This galvanized her research, leading to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin also pioneered using X-rays to analyze complex, unorganized matter to create images of crystallized solids.
Relocating to Birkbeck College in England, Franklin studied the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and the structure of RNA. She published several papers on viruses and her research group paved the way in studies for structural virology.
Late in 1956, Franklin discovered she had ovarian cancer but continued to work through it, despite having multiple operations and experimental chemotherapy. She died at 37 -- but not without making her mark on the world of chemistry and X-ray crystallography.
Lived: 1920 - 1958
Why She Matters
Rosalind Franklin’s work regarding the DNA model brought forth the evidence of two forms of molecule -- Type A (dry form) and Type B (wet form) -- found by adjusting the amount of water found in a molecule. This also led to her discovery of data that determines the stability of a molecule, which became the basis for all later attempts to construct a model of the molecule. She contributed to the X-ray photographing of B-DNA (photograph 51), acquired through hours upon hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself refined.
English chemist and X-ray crystallographer
Best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, which lead to the discovery of the double helix
Her experimental data was shared without her permission and used by Watson and Crick to build their DNA model who were credited for the discovery, but she was not included as a co-author or mentioned in the published paper
Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, but there was no mention of Franklin’s contribution
Pioneered research into the molecular structures of viruses, including polio
Her colleague and principal beneficiary in her will won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982; it is likely she would have shared in that prize, if she were alive
Starting in the mid-1990s, various buildings and institutes were named after her, as well as an asteroid
In 2003, the Royal Society of London established the Rosalind Franklin Award for outstanding contribution to any area of natural science, engineering, or technology
Leaving a Legacy
While best known for her contribution to the discovery of the DNA model, and ignored by the Nobel Committee in her lifetime, Franklin’s equally pioneering work in medical virology combined with her experience in X-ray photography significantly advanced the study of Polio. As an unmarried female Jewish scientist, she faced tremendous challenges from most of her male colleagues, but she was undeterred in her brief lifetime from the pursuit of excellence in the sciences. Her obituaries celebrated her "beautifully executed researches, carried out with apparently effortless skill, and her gift for organizing research projects."