This week in science history: The dark lady of DNA dies


Rosalind Franklin died terribly young, denying her the Nobel her colleagues felt she deserved. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Rosalind Franklin, hard at work in her laboratory.
Rosalind Franklin, hard at work in her laboratory.
Universal History Archive / Getty Images

The Nobel Committee does not make posthumous prize nominations, but if it did, British chemist and researcher Rosalind Franklin, who died on April 16, 1958, is widely regarded as a deserving recipient.

Franklin’s work on X-ray diffraction images of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) contributed to the discovery of the DNA double helix, for which James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Watson later suggested Franklin deserved a Nobel for chemistry, along with Wilkins, if it were not for the prohibition on posthumous nominations.

Noberprize.org says of the double-helix discovery: “The sentence ‘This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest’ may be one of science's most famous understatements. It appeared in April 1953 in the scientific paper where James Watson and Francis Crick presented the structure of the DNA-helix.”

The organisation says the discovery “solved one of the most important of all biological riddles”.

Franklin’s biographer, Brenda Maddox, called her “the Dark Lady of DNA”, based on a disparaging reference to Franklin by one of her coworkers, and also because although her work on DNA was crucial to the discovery of its structure, her contribution to that discovery is little known.

Franklin studied physics and chemistry at Newnham Women's College at Cambridge University in the UK, and then went to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied carbon and graphite microstructures, forming the basis of her doctorate in physical chemistry, which she earned from Cambridge in 1945.

Her studies took her into the field of X-ray crystallography, which would become her life's work.

Rosalind Franklin's famous "photograph 51", revealing the double helix structure of DNA.
Rosalind Franklin's famous "photograph 51", revealing the double helix structure of DNA.
R. Franklin

X-ray crystallography uses X-rays to determine the precise arrangements of atoms in a crystal. The beams strike a crystal – and some biological molecules, such as DNA, can form crystals if treated in certain ways – and diffract in specific directions, revealing the arrangement of atoms, generating information that can be used in a range of studies.

Nobelprize.org says it was Franklin's crystallographic “photograph 51” that revealed the helical structure of DNA to Watson and Crick in 1953. This picture of DNA that had been crystallised under moist conditions shows a fuzzy “X” in the middle of the molecule, a pattern indicating a helical structure.

Franklin moved on to make important discoveries about ribonucleic acid (RNA) and virus particles, including the tobacco mosaic virus and polio. Her work was cut short, however, when she died of ovarian cancer at age 37.

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/educational/medicine/dna_double_helix/readmore.html
  2. https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/rosalind-franklin-a-crucial-contribution-6538012
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