A Biography of The Dark Lady Of Notting Hill
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Wednesday 3rd December 2014

It is doubtful if any other woman scientist has been the cause of as much debate and controversy as Rosalind Franklin. 

Rosalind was born at Chepstow Villas, Notting Hill, London, on 25 July, 1920, the eldest daughter and second of the five children of Ellis and Muriel Franklin, members of a family that were established in England in the mid-eighteenth century.  She first went to a private day school, Norland Place, and then to Lindores School for Young Ladies in Sussex.  Excelling in science, Rosalind attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School from 1932 until 1938, one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry.  Usually top of her class, she was awarded a School Leaving Exhibition of £30 a year for three years, which her father asked to be given to a deserving refugee student.  

Enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, Rosalind read natural sciences,  graduating three years later.  She held a graduate fellowship for a year, but in 1942 went to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association where she made studies of carbon and graphite microstructures.  This work became the basis of her doctorate in physical chemistry awarded by Cambridge University in 1945.  Two years later she moved to the Laboratoire Centrale des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris where she learned X-ray diffraction techniques.  Her work later proved to be highly relevant for the development of carbon fibres.  

In 1950 Rosalind was invited by Professor John Randall to build up an X-ray diffraction laboratory at King’s College, London, to study the structure of DNA.  Professor Randall made it clear that she would be in charge of the “experimental X-ray effort” and she became a Turner and Newall research fellow of London University.  However, he did not make this clear to Maurice Wilkins, of King’s College physics department, who had started working on DNA, but was away at the time of her appointment.  

When Wilkins returned he behaved as though she were a technical assistant and their relationship never recovered.  To make matters worse, women were not allowed in the senior common room and there was a separate dining room for the very few women at the College.  Rosalind, with her dedication to her work and a prickly exterior towards her colleagues, was not going to have an easy time.  She and Maurice Wilkins were now leading separate research groups.  The physicist, Francis Crook, was co-operating with Wilkins, but both groups were concerned with DNA. 

Between 1951 and 1953 Rosalind came very close to solving the DNA structure.  One of her crystallographic photographs, Number 51, clearly showed the structure, and Professor J. D. Bernal of Birkbeck College called her X-ray photographs of DNA “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”  

Unknown to Rosalind, the head of the unit for Molecular Biology had passed on to both Crick and Wilson a paper she had given at King’s College in 1951.  When a colleague, James D. Watson, arrived in England to study crystallography and plant viruses, Maurice Wilkins secretly showed him photograph 51, describing in detail over dinner how the research was progressing and what Miss Franklin was thinking.  

When Watson saw this picture the solution became apparent to him.  In his book, The Double Helix, Watson described the sequence of the betrayal: how Wilkins told him that Rosalind had evidence for a new three-dimensional form of DNA and showed him a print of the new form they called the “B” structure.  As he later wrote, no-one  at King’s realised the photo was in their hands.  Their results went into an article in the April 1953 edition of Nature almost immediately, but her work appeared only as a support article, with a second paper in the July issue.  

Rosalind moved to Birkbeck College in March 1953, where her main work was on the tobacco mosaic virus, although she also worked on the polio virus.  It would be fair to say that the department of physics was not sorry to see her go and she was glad to leave.  In the summer of 1956 she became ill and died of ovarian cancer on 16 April 1958, at the Royal Marsden Hospital.  It is possible that her cancer was caused by exposure to the large number of x-rays her research entailed.           

In 1962 Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on the structure of DNA.   Rosalind’s name was not mentioned and the debate about the amount of credit due to her continues.  What is clear is that she did have a meaningful role in discovering the structure of DNA and that she was a scientist of the first rank.  

St. Paul’s School now honours her with the “Rosalind Franklin Technology Centre” and there are many laboratories and halls named after her.  In March 2000, King’s College, London, dedicated the Franklin-Wilkins Building.  During this ceremony Watson admitted that Rosalind’s contribution had been critical to the discovery that had been made.  Her life was, as her obituary in The Times said, ‘an example of single-minded devotion to scientific research’. 

Doreen Berger 

Doreen is an award winning genealogist and writer, specialising in Anglo-Jewry. She is a founding member of The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, formulated and served as Chair of their Anglo-Jewish Special Interest Group for thirteen years, and is current Chairman of the Society.  Her two reference books, The Jewish Victorians: Genealogical Information from the Jewish Newspapers (one covering the 1860s and one the 1870s in mid-Victorian England) can be found in many libraries, including The Hebrew University and The British Library.  She is also a contributor to The Dictionary of National Biography, has broadcast on Jewish radio, and writes regular genealogical articles.