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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin -- Molecular Biologist
Her groundbreaking work in DNA research laid the foundation for the achievements of Watson and Crick

An inquisitive child, Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born and raised in London, England, excelling in science at an early age.  She attended one of the few girls' schools in London at the time that taught physics and chemistry. In 1935, when she turned 15, she made up her mind to become a scientist. Her father, a prominent banker, was decidedly against higher education for women and wanted Rosalind to be a social worker. He ultimately changed his mind and Rosalind enrolled as a physical chemistry student at Newman College in Cambridge, England, setting her on a path towards a scientific achievement that would make history: contributing to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA.

Why She's Important:  At a time when very little was known about the molecular or chemical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), Rosalind painstakingly used and refined X-ray photo diffraction methods to study DNA.  Through this approach, her famous "Photograph 51" of the "B" form of DNA, in 1952 revealed the density of DNA and, more importantly, established that the DNA molecule existed in a helical conformation. Her work to make clearer X-ray patterns of DNA molecules laid the foundation for James Watson and Francis Crick to suggest in 1953 that the structure of DNA is a double-helix polymer, a spiral consisting of two DNA strands wound around each other. Watson and Crick, with Maurice Wilkins, in 1962 received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA (based on "Photograph 51"), four years after Rosalind's untimely death at age 37 from ovarian cancer.

(Note:  A debate still continues over the degree of credit that Rosalind should have been given for her contribution to the Nobel Prize for the DNA achievement. The rules and criteria for the Nobel Prize call for the award to be given to recipients who are still alive at the time of their selection. [Rosalind died four years prior to when the Prize was given.] Nevertheless, many have thought -- and others still do -- that she deserved explicit mention in the Nobel award.)

Education:  Earned degree in Physical Chemistry from Newman College (Cambridge, England), and Ph.D. from Cambridge University.  (In Rosalind’s honor, the  Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago is named for her!)

In Her Own Words:  "Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment."