Rosalind Franklin and the Secret of Life

By Jaime Seltzer

Ask any scientist about Rosalind Franklin and the expression that will adorn their faces will be immediate commiseration served up with a side of outrage. Many consider her the scientist most cheated out of honors, awards, and recognition in the modern age.

Rosalind was born in 1920 in London, England, to a wealthy and prominent Jewish family. After she earned the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, she became an Assistant Research Officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association, working to study coal and its structure, before earning her Doctorate in Physical Chemistry from Cambridge University, in 1945.

All of this is by way of saying that Rosalind was educated, extremely clever, and fiercely determined. Her main field of study was x-ray crystallography, or x-ray diffraction: a method that allowed the researcher to take pictures of different molecules and potentially determine how they were put together.

Many other young scientists were content to simply imitate the technique they had learned from their mentors. Not Franklin. It was all very well and good to understand the structure of simple crystals, but her interest lay in organic compounds, the molecules important to living things. She pioneered the use of x-ray crystallography for complex, ‘disorganized’ organic matter while working at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris.

She published seventeen papers on virology, including papers on the tobacco mosaic virus, the first virus ever discovered. She was able to describe the virus’s entire structure in 1955, making it the first virus for which the entire structure was known.

In 1951, Franklin returned to England to accept a position as a Research Associate in John Randall’s lab at King’s College, and took up the study of the elusive ‘molecule of life’: DNA.
It was here that Franklin first ran into trouble. There was already a research scientist working on DNA at King’s College: Maurice Wilkins. John Randall appears to have led both Franklin and Wilkins to believe that they alone would be in charge of the DNA project.

It did not help that Wilkins was away when Rosalind started the job. He caught sight of Franklin, took in her youth and her gender, and mistook her for the new research assistant Randall had promised him rather than the ‘Doctor Franklin’ he had also been told to expect. Most articles you can find about the two scientists’ relationship from then on use euphemisms such as the two scientists had different temperaments to mean from then on, the two scientists hated each other’s guts.

Now, at the same time as Franklin and Wilkins were refusing to make eye contact when they passed in the hallway, there were two other scientists also working on the structure of DNA: James Watson and Frances Crick. The two pairs of scientists communicated from time to time. Wilkins obtained an image of DNA that Franklin’s team had produced… and handed the image off to Watson and Crick without asking Franklin or even informing her of what he had done.

X-ray crystallography does not work like a camera snapping a picture from a tripod. Franklin’s Image 51 was the result of over a hundred hours of x-ray exposure using a machine that Franklin herself had basically invented. She had discovered that there were two confirmations of DNA and chosen which sort image to take, and she and her lab assistant had done all the calculations… and Wilkins had shown it to a pair of rival scientists working on the same idea at a different university. Watson had even attended a lecture Franklin gave on her discoveries about DNA, but admitted he couldn’t make heads or tails of it until he was shown the image by Wilkins.

There can be no question as to whether or not Image 51 helped Watson and Crick determine the double-helical structure of DNA. Both men stated unequivocally that it was the ‘Eureka!’ moment they needed to produce the correct structure. It was very kind of them that they chose to mention Franklin – and Wilkins! – in a footnote of one of the articles that earned them a Nobel Prize for their efforts.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin and her Women in Science card.

This is not to say that Watson and Crick’s research was ‘incidental’ to determining the structure of DNA. They were able to interpret Rosalind’s image in a way that Wilkins did not, and deserved their Nobel. Wilkins, who shared it with them, perhaps deserves less of the credit; although he was a credible scientist who had done other valuable work.

Nature, a well-known science journal, published a series of articles on the matter from Watson and Crick, and included supporting articles from both Franklin and Wilkins in the same issue. The implication was that Watson and Crick had come up the structure of DNA, and that Franklin’s and Wilkins’s articles were backing them up! At the time of publication, Rosalind still had no idea that Watson and Crick were inspired by an image she had produced, or indeed had ever even seen one.

Afterwards, though, Watson and Crick’s helpful footnote made the progression of events starkly clear to Franklin, who left King’s College shortly after. The university extracted a promise that she would not publish again on the subject of DNA; given how many people had contributed their ideas to the university’s research, they maintained, such knowledge clearly was to stay at the university and be published by the university’s employees, only.

One might think that Franklin, cheated out of her place in history, might slink away thereafter to some second-rate school and publish on, I don’t know, the history of corruption in academia. Instead, Franklin made a name for herself by obeying the letter of the law, if not the spirit: instead of studying DNA, she studied RNA, which codes for the genetic material of viruses and is an important molecule for the production of proteins in living things. She published seventeen papers on virology, including papers on the tobacco mosaic virus, the first virus ever discovered. She was able to describe the virus’s entire structure in 1955, making it the first virus for which the entire structure was known. Her work allowed us to better understand viral pathogens that infect human beings and livestock as well.

Rosalind died of cancer very young, at age 37. Since she passed away before the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1962, it is impossible to know if she would have shared it with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins – but given her footnote-mention, the general perception that what she had done was ‘snap a photograph’, and Wilkins’s backstabbery, the answer is most unfortunately a ‘probably not’. Perhaps most startling of all, Franklin’s laboratory notebooks reveal that she believed the structure of DNA to be a ‘double-helix’ a month before Watson and Crick’s famous articles were published.

Perhaps, if Wilkins had not so fatefully mistaken Rosalind for his new assistant, they might have worked together as well as the famously chummy Watson and Crick – and the model might be called the Wilkins-Franklin model of DNA.

References: Editors. (n.d.). Rosalind Franklin Biography Chemist (1920–1958). In bio.. Retrieved September 23, 2015, from
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. (2013, September 17). Biography 19: Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958). In DNA Learning Center. Retrieved from
Lee, J.J. (2013, May 19). 6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism. In National Geographic. Retrieved from

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