This is part of an ongoing series devoting to the many women in STEM fields. Today, we feature a scientist who became well-known long after her death: Rosalind Franklin.
Popular culture credits James Watson and Francis Crick with the discovery of the helical structure of DNA. Indeed, they won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. However, the lesser-known–but no less integral–contributor to their work was a woman by the name of Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Franklin was a well-educated young Jewish woman that excelled in both languages and sports. She was often characterized as “reluctant” to share her work, a resistance that probably stemmed from the sexism and anti-Semitism prominent in her place of work. But despite the obstacles she faced, Franklin established herself as a groundbreaking researcher, whose primary tool was X-ray diffraction. Franklin was the first to use X-ray diffraction on irregular solids. Additionally, her penchant for perfectionism enabled her to snap photos of unprecedented high quality of structures at their molecular level.
After perfecting diffraction to her satisfaction, she turned her attention to analyzing DNA. After several years of tireless work, Rosalind immortalized pictorial evidence of the double-helix structure of DNA. In this famous photograph, Franklin paved the way for the double-stranded model of DNA – not single- or triple-stranded, as prominent theories at the time hypothesized.
Despite Franklin’s tireless efforts in the laboratory, her work was stolen from her by her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, and delivered without her knowledge or consent to Watson and Crick. When Wilkins secreted copies of Franklin’s work to Watson and Crick, they were able to correct their triple-stranded model; and from there, Watson and Crick were able to deduce the correct structure of DNA. Franklin’s contribution was reduced to nothing more than a footnote in their famous paper.
Unfortunately, Franklin’s remarkable contribution to our modern understanding of biology is not commonly taught in elementary education. However, there has recently been an increase in attention paid toward women in science. As such, Franklin’s name is becoming more and more prominent in discussions about biology. In fact, if not for the rule against awarding posthumous Nobel Prizes, she might have won the Nobel Prize as well.