Rosalind Franklin

Mar 14, 2021

Whenever we encounter the terms ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘DNA’ in our lives, whether it’s in a serious academic discussion about curing deadly diseases, or as a bad plot device in a low-budget sci-fi movie, one particular image often pops into our mind almost instantly: the DNA double helix. This little shape has become engraved in so many of our minds due to our constant subliminal exposure to it. The iconography is everywhere – we see it depicted on textbooks and science posters, on design art and company logos. Not to mention, it runs RAMPANT in every corner of pop culture. Indeed, for any book, TV show or content marketed towards children or science amateurs, you would be hard pressed to NOT find this quintessential symbol.

And it’s not just because of a superficial obsession with this weird squiggly shape. The determination of the physical structure of DNA has single-handedly led to entire fields of biology and biochemistry that were previously unknown. It was one of the most monumental achievements since mankind turned its Eye of Sauron from scouring the infinite cosmos above us, and aimed it to look deep within ourselves.

An illustration of Rosalind Franklin with what is perhaps her greatest contribution to science

To a good number of you reading this article, none of this is new information. I would also wager that most of you would be aware of the scientists who made possible this great discovery. Yes, yes, I can hear you saying it – James Watson and Francis Crick. And the more invested (or should I say, nerdier) among you, might even know that Watson and Crick shared their Nobel prize with another scientist, Maurice Wilkins. But this article isn’t about any of them - it’s about a relatively unacknowledged, and still widely unknown figure, whose work directly enabled Watson and Crick to come up with their model. Her name? Well, you read the title, but I will state it again for dramatic effect: Rosalind Franklin. Her story is one of steadfast dedication, grueling commitment, unapologetic misfortune, and triumph in spite of it all.

Franklin was born into a wealthy family in early 20thcentury London, which enabled her to get a good education at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, a well-renowned private institution. This foundation, along with Franklin’s innate intelligence and capability, not to mention passion for science, led to her enrollment at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, where she studied chemistry. Franklin was regarded by most everyone - her peers and seniors alike - as a highly motivated and talented young researcher. While many respected her resourcefulness and work ethic, there were only a pitiful few who were able to fully recognise the potential she possessed.

Before we move any further, I have to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the matter of Franklin’s gender. If being a young woman in the 1940s already presented its share of unique challenges, social and cultural alike, being a young woman in the 1940s studying the sciences added that many more obstacles. It’s tough to address sexism and/or attitudes towards women in science, as these things are often very hard to identify and take concrete steps against. What makes this case especially prickly is that we are looking back at a different time through the lens of our present. Regardless of these conditions, it is a certainty than Franklin and others like her had to deal with discriminatory and unfair practices during the course of their careers.

In spite of the era in which she lived, and the odd, often lonely position her work put her in, Franklin was not the type of person to get bogged down. She was a resilient and high-spirited person, sometimes to the point of being overly stubborn, blunt or generally tough to work with. These traits, however, did not endear her to all who made her acquaintance.

Franklin on a hiking trip in the Alps in 1949

Franklin’s tryst with DNA, the thing that would end up being intertwined with her legacy forever more, did not occur immediately. After graduating from Cambridge, Franklin received a research fellowship, studying physical chemistry for a year. Then, with the onset of the Second World War, she left the fellowship to contribute research as part of CURA, the British organisation for the study of coal and carbon. The arrangement at CURA was flexible, and Franklin was allowed to research on her own, a situation that benefited her style of working. She published five different papers in her time there, making significant strides in studying the physical structure of carbon, and the efficiency of burning coal.

Franklin’s next foray, possibly the most impactful of her entire career, would take her to Paris, where unbeknownst to her, she would obtain the tools needed to finally crack open the mystery of the genetic code. A friend of hers introduced her to Marcel Mathieu, director of the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat, the major state-sponsored research laboratories. It was here that Franklin mastered the art of X-ray crystallography under Jacques Mering, a veteran X-ray crystallographer who taught her the ropes. Once again, Franklin applied herself brilliantly, using her newly-learned techniques to further her research on coal and carbon-related substances, publishing numerous papers.

And finally, the time had come for Franklin to play her part, one of paramount importance, in the discovery of the century. In 1951, Franklin accepted a fellowship to join the biophysical department in King’s College back in London. The very same King’s College that a certain Maurice Wilkins was currently researching DNA in. Franklin’s role at King’s was clear: with her experience from working in Paris and being the most qualified person there for the job, she was tasked with giving their X-ray crystallography unit a much-needed upgrade. Wilkins had already tried using X-ray crystallography to study DNA and produced results, so Franklin, with her expertise, was also assigned to study it.

But though her job description seemed tidy, the ensuing situation at King’s was everything but. Wilkins had a personality that was in many ways the polar opposite to someone like Franklin – he was shy, non-confrontational and couldn’t get along with the matter-of-factness that accompanied Franklin. The relationship between the two quickly soured, and never quite recovered. During this time, a PhD student named Raymond Gosling who previously worked under Wilkins, was assigned to Franklin. Franklin got to work improving the laboratory set-up, and she and Gosling were soon able to obtain two sets of high-quality photographs of DNA fibres.

With that, all the dominoes had been set in place. All that was required to set off a chain reaction, was a small push.

On the 30thof January, 1953, a young man named James Watson visited King’s College to meet with a friend, Maurice Wilkins. He had been working at Cambridge with another scientist, Francis Crick, on developing a model for the structure of DNA. Their first model constructed in 1952 had been a failure, dismissed by Rosalind Franklin herself, who did not believe constructing a model was feasible or worth the effort with the current information. Watson was eager to develop their model quickly, to beat out American competitors, who had just tried and failed at their own model. At this point, Rosalind Franklin was winding up her work on DNA, having decided to leave King’s College and move elsewhere.

Wilkins showed Watson one of the photos that Raymond Gosling (now reassigned to Wilkins following Franklin’s impending departure) had taken with Franklin. Photo 51, part of the magnum opus of Franklin’s work in X-ray crystallography, gave Watson the insight to pursue a double-helix model. But converting a theoretical model to a physical one was not easy. As fate would have it, all the important measurements, obtained through X-ray crystallography by Franklin, were provided to the Francis-Crick duo through a report she had written some time before.

Photo 51, the picture that changed the world of biology

And so it was Franklin that came to the rescue of the DNA duo, not once, but TWICE, first through a high-definition photo of helical DNA fibres, and second through the experimental numbers to back it up. Crick got to work on his calculations, and in April 1953, Nature journal published three separate articles on DNA: Francis and Crick’s DNA model, and papers from both Wilkins and Franklin, containing their X-ray data.

Franklin saw and concurred with Francis and Crick’s final model, and agreed to have it published as their own, with Wilkins and her publishing the data supporting it. However, she was never made aware that her research had such an impact on the DNA duo, as neither Watson nor Crick really told anyone at King’s what exactly they were doing.

Franklin never touched DNA again, doing further pioneering research on certain viruses and RNA. In 1958, four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins would receive the Nobel Prize for their work, Franklin died from ovarian cancer. And as the Nobel committee does not award posthumously, her contributions could not even be appreciated.

Watson, Crick and Wilkins receiving the Nobel prize in Medicine in 1962 

Thus ends the poignant, yet inspiring story of Rosalind Franklin. If she had enjoyed a fuller life, she would have undoubtedly made veritable leaps and bounds in advancing the boundaries of chemistry and biology. Francis, Crick, and even Wilkins, for that matter, never seemed to harbour any malicious intent towards her; they all acknowledged her brilliance, as we observe in Watson’s memoir. Sadly, such after-the-fact recognition is not at all sufficient, or truly telling of just how much this brilliant woman contributed to the world as a whole.

Ironically, the double helix stayed true to its shape, winding around, eluding scientists for decades, leaving twist after twist in its wake, until someone was able to grab onto, and unravel it.

Franklin was double-crossed by the double helix: not so much a driven act by individuals or even society, but a cruel twist of fate that all humans are vulnerable to. What little we can do to honour her legacy, outside of amending the history and science books, is to mark our minds. Wherever we find that dastardly little squiggle next, we now know to envision a powerful asterisk next to it, in the shape of an exemplary scientist.

An article by Dhruv Raghavan

Disclaimer: the pictures in the article are for illustration purpose only. Neither the writer nor PHoEnix has a claim over them.

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