Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix
Although she made essential contributions toward elucidating the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin is
known to many only as seen through the distorting lens of James Watson's book, The Double Helix.
by Lynne Osman Elkin - California State University, Hayward
In 1962, James Watson, then at Harvard University, and Cambridge University's Francis Crick stood next to Maurice Wilkins from
King's College, London, to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their "discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids
and its significance for information transfer in living material." Watson and Crick could not have proposed their celebrated structure for DNA as
early in 1953 as they did without access to experimental results obtained by King's College scientist Rosalind Franklin. Franklin had died of cancer
in 1958 at age 37, and so was ineligible to share the honor. Her conspicuous absence from the awards ceremony--the dramatic culmination of the
struggle to determine the structure of DNA--probably contributed to the neglect, for several decades, of Franklin's role in the DNA story. She most
likely never knew how significantly her data influenced Watson and Crick's proposal.
Franklin was born 25 July 1920 to Muriel Waley Franklin and merchant banker Ellis Franklin, both members of educated and socially
conscious Jewish families. They were a close immediate family, prone to lively discussion and vigorous debates at which the politically liberal,
logical, and determined Rosalind excelled: She would even argue with her assertive, conservative father. Early in life, Rosalind manifested the
creativity and drive characteristic of the Franklin women, and some of the Waley women, who were expected to focus their education, talents, and
skills on political, educational, and charitable forms of community service. It was thus surprising when young Rosalind expressed an early
fascination with physics and chemistry classes at the academically rigorous St. Paul's Girls' School in London, and unusual that she earned a
bachelor's degree in natural sciences with a specialty in physical chemistry. The degree was earned at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1941.
From 1942 to 1946, Franklin did war-related graduate work with the British Coal Utilization Research Association. That work earned
her a PhD from Cambridge in 1945, and an offer to join the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris. She worked there, from
1947 to 1950, with Jacques Mering and became proficient at applying x-ray diffraction techniques to imperfectly crystalline matter such as coal. In