Celebrating Women in STEM: Dr. Rosalind Franklin

Dr. Rosalind Franklin’s story is the perfect example of how women face discrimination in science.

Using x-ray diffraction, a technique which allows scientists to see fine structure, Franklin discovered the helical structure of DNA (shown in the left-hand image). Her work, which was shown to her competitors without her knowledge, helped win three of her male colleagues the 1962 Nobel Prize.

Born in London in 1920, Franklin excelled at science from a young age. By the age of sixteen, Franklin had decided to become a scientist.

She enrolled at Newnham College (one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) in 1938 and completed her Bachelor’s degree in Physical Chemistry in just three years.

In 1942, England was caught in World War II and Franklin turned her focus to the efficiency of coal and charcoal.

Working for the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA), Franklin spent the next four years looking at the micro-structures of different forms of coal and carbons.

Franklin was the first to discover and measure the micro-structures of coal and published five scientific papers on the subject. This work became her doctoral dissertation, and in 1945 she earned her Ph.D. from Cambridge at just 26 years old.

At the end of World War II, Franklin joined the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat in Paris. There she spent three years learning about X-ray diffraction analysis, a technique that uses the wave-particle duality of X-rays to measure fine crystalline structure.

Her work in Paris earned her international fame among coal chemists and helped to pave the way to carbon fibers and new heat-resistant materials.

Franklin was awarded a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship in 1951 and returned to England to take a post at King’s College in London.

That’s when Franklin’s life took a decidedly downward turn. She began working in Dr. John T. Randall’s Biophysics lab, where she was originally supposed to work on analyzing proteins, but instead was asked to investigate DNA.

As an established scientist, Franklin assumed this task was only given to her, but her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, was also working on the structure of DNA. He assumed Dr. Franklin was there as a technical assistant for him.

While Wilkins eventually acknowledged the mistake, the damage to their relationship was done. Franklin and Wilkins continued their work on DNA separately.

Franklin was the first person to discover that DNA had a helical structure, but she wasn’t sure what to do with the information. While she puzzled over this new discovery, Wilkins shared her work with Francis Crick and James Watson without her knowledge.

Watson and Crick immediately understood the implications of the double helix nature, and published “their” findings in Nature in April 1953. No one gave Franklin the credit she deserved.

Refusing defeat, Franklin did not let the actions of her male colleagues, and the sexist atmosphere at King’s College, ruin her career. She transferred her fellowship to a crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College, where she began a successful career in plant viruses.

She published 21 scientific articles about viruses, contributed to our understanding of RNA and won recognition for her work from the Royal Institution in 1956.

Sadly, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that same year. She passed away in April 1958 at the young age of 37. Four years later, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for their discovery of DNA.

Franklin’s sad story, while in the past, serves as an excellent reminder of the discrimination women in STEM face every day.

            Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Meetings every Friday in the Women’s Center, 12 – 1 pm.



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