Discovering DNA’s (deoxyribonucleic acid) structure was arguably one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. The credit for such an achievement was largely attributed to the two individuals seen below: Francis Crick and James Watson, respectively. However, there is another, more tragic element to this story that goes greatly unnoticed and that’s the story Rosalind Franklin.
Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) was a Jewish, British chemist and X-ray crystallographer who made contributions to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognized posthumously.Rosalind Franklin scientific potential was largely hindered on the basis of her gender.
Rosalind Franklin Had ambitions for becoming a scientist since early childhood, despite the fact that females were not fully recognized and respected as scientists during that era. She excelled anyways, won a scholarship to Cambridge where she studied Chemistry and earned her PHD. She later conducted research in coal which resulted in better gas masks for the British during World War II. In 1951, she found herself at King College in Pennsylvania where she took on the challenge of studying the structure of DNA through X-ray imaging.
Although she was heavily discriminated on the basis of her sex, she excelled anyways. If not for her courage and perseverance the humbling, beautiful and insightful image below would never have been created. Seen on the right is photo 51, the worlds first X-ray image of DNA.
Time required to produce the image was over 100 hours, and the time required to process it took over a year.
During this time, Francis Crick and James Watson (discussed earlier) were well on the path of discovering the structure of DNA, as well. Without Rosalind Franklin consent or knowledge, a colleague of Rosalind stole the photo seen above and showed it to Francis Crick and James Watson. Using Rosalind’s data, with successive attempts of trial and error, Francis and James got the structure of DNA correct. Francis and James published their model in 1953, at that same time Rosalind completed her correct model and published as well.
The journalist intentionally framed Rosalind’s work as “confirming” the work of Francis and James work, rather than inspiring it. This was due to the unfortunate sexual bias of the time.Shortly after Rosalind died of cancer in 1958. Rosalind had never known that Francis and James used photo as model to their conclusions.
In 1962 the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was jointly awarded to Francis Crick and James Watson, “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.
It was only documented years later that in fact Francis Crick and James Watson used Rosalind’s work as the foundation for their great work. It was speculated that Rosalind could have been awarded the Nobel Prize as well, however, Nobel Prizes can’t be awarded posthumously.
So, the next time you hear the names Francis Crick and James Watson in class, be sure to raise up your hand and let those around you know a little more about this less known story.