Famous chemists like Louis Pasteur are quite revered for their work; however, Rosalind Franklin didn't benefit from the same popularity for her contributions to Chemistry.

She received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and went on to become one of the most undervalued chemists in her field.

An image of the standard DNA structure. Rosalind Franklin is arguably the only famous chemist who wasn't given due credits for what she discovered; for instance, the discovery of the DNA model inspired by her unpublished work
One of the world's top chemistry discoveries is the DNA structure. DNA or (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the molecule consisting of two polynucleotide chains coiled together to make the double-helix structure carrying genetic data for functioning, development, reproduction, and growth of every known virus and organism. (Source: Pixabay)

Her learning focused on X-ray diffraction and crystallography, techniques she later put into effect into DNA fibers.

Moreover, her famous "Photo 51" provided key, detailed insights into the DNA structure, a monumental resource for the entire fraternity when defending their structure model. However, the limelight was stolen from her!

But why is it that despite making a critical contribution to discovering the double-helix structure, she never got the appreciation or critical acclaim?

Read on as we explore the life of one of the famous chemists in the history of science!

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Early Years

Born in London, England, Rosalind Franklin belonged to an affluent Anglo-Jewish family and displayed remarkable intelligence at a very tender age.

By the age of 15, she realized she wanted to become a scientist like the famous chemist Marie Curie, known for her discovery of polonium and radium.

She enrolled at the "Newnham College, University of Cambridge," in 1938, where she studied chemistry and secured Second-Class Honours in her finals in 1941.

After that, she started working for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association – a non-profit organization – as a research officer.

Here, she studied keenly about coal porosity. Interestingly, this discipline became the basis for her Ph.D. thesis titled "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal" in 1945.

A year later, Rosalind Franklin joined the Central State Laboratory for Chemical Services in Paris. It is here that she go to collaborate with Jacques Mering, a specialist in mineralogy and crystallography.

A young female chemist is busy experimenting in the lab. In the field of chemistry, experiments – and a lot of them – lead to ultimate breakthroughs. And it's vital to ensure that when in the presence of volatile equipment, one should always have goggles and gloves on
Rosalind Franklin is believed to very strict about working in a neat, clean laboratory. Due to her unending discipline, she managed to provide the world with era-defining chemistry discoveries, including the famous "photo 51" among others.  (Source: Pixabay)

He taught her about X-ray diffraction. This played a major role in her overall research, which led to discovering the DNA structure!

In addition to that, Rosalind Franklin also pioneered the usage of X-rays to form images of crystalline solids. This process helps evaluate unorganized, complex matters and not just single crystals!

Life In Discovery

While pursuing her postgraduate research and collaborating with Jacques Mering, she became a crystallography (X-ray diffraction) expert.

This complicated word is jargon for a method that identifies the arrangement of atoms in crystals and other solids.

A young male chemist is keenly observing a specimen using a microscope in the University lab. It's a helpful tool to view the finer genetic makeup of samples, which are extremely small and can't be seen through the naked eye
For chemists, a microscope is an essential piece of equipment. Rosalind Franklin, like other scientists, had to depend on essential laboratory instruments such as a microscope, microtome, etc., to achieve major scientific breakthroughs. (Source: Pixabay)

Using her skills, she developed ways to reveal the carbon structure. This achievement set the stage for new commercial usages of carbon and facilitated various heat-resistant materials.

By 30, Rosalind became a famous chemist; she was considered an expert on carbon-based materials. Not only that, but she had also published multiple papers in peer-reviewed journals.

In 1950, Rosalind Franklin received a three-year Turner-Newall Fellowship to study protein solution changes at the famous King's College London. She welcomed this shift to biological chemistry from physical chemistry; however, her assignment changed abruptly before beginning the research.

Upon acquiring a particularly prepared nucleic gel, the college nudged her to build on this finding and apply her expert skills in crystallography to investigate. Her unique way of using the technology proved essential in discerning the helical structure of DNA molecules.

Her first nine months at the King's College were spent working with Raymond Gosling, a Ph.D. student. They designed a micro-camera to refine and understand the conditions necessary to achieve an authentic DNA diffraction image.

In 1952, Rosalind Franklin, along with Raymond Gosling, suspended a small DNA fiber and blasted it with an X-ray beam for a full 100-hours in a controlled relative-humidity environment.

The rays generated patterns on a photographic plate, diffracted by electrons housed in the atoms of a fiber. Then, she performed careful mathematical calculations to examine the patterns to reveal the structure.

Before Dr. Franklin, X-ray crystallography was never used this way. In 1953, Rosalind Franklin published her famous "Photo 51" diffraction image in the journal Nature.

However, Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson also announced in the Nature journal about their double-helix DNA model.

Rosalind Franklin's data corroborated this double-helix model, but it's unknown whether she knew her unpublished work had helped Watson and Crick construct it.

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Challenges At The King's College

During her extended stay at the King's College London, Rosalind Franklin faced hostile and anti-collegial working conditions where she constantly encountered sexism and anti-Semitism.

In an interview with an author/biographer Brenda Maddox, one scientist even claimed that her contributions were undervalued at King's College.

Moreover, she didn't benefit from any of the perks usually given to her academic rank or appointment. Perhaps she was one of the only famous chemists in history to face numerous obstacles even after showing her worth.

Rosalind Franklin was deceived into collaborating with J.T Randall at the King's College laboratory — professor and head of a male-dominated biophysics section.

While assigning her a new role in crystallography, he failed to share it with Maurice Wilkin — a British biophysicist who had hoped to supervise her and help decode her photographs.

However, she was told by Dr. J.T Randall that DNA was her primary and sole territory.

A series of miscommunications further aggravated the strained relationship between Dr. Maurice Wilkin and Dr. Rosalind Franklin.

The final blow to this relationship came when Maurice Wilkins began collaborating with Dr. Crick and Dr. Watson at the Cavendish Lab. The two, at this time, were struggling hard to decode DNA via modeling!

In 1953, Raymond Gosling revealed Rosalind Franklin's photo 51 to Maurice Wilkin. Without wasting any time, he forwarded the gesture to Jim Watson and Francis Crick, who immediately deduced that the helical structure is essential to DNA's replication.

Photo 51

The famous Photo 51, a luminous photo of the paracrystalline gel composed of DNA, was taken by Rosalind Franklin in 1952 via X-ray diffraction. The mild diamond shapes below and above and on each side of a darkened X indicate a double helix pattern.

This diffraction pattern offered enough structural data to construct a viable DNA model. The actual structure of the molecule resembles a spiral staircase consisting of four base pairs and two sugar-phosphates.

Rosalind's work with the structure of DNA spurred a new emphasis and energy on biology, which dominated post-second world war science.

Along with her, the American chemist Linus Pauling's discovery of alpha-helix – a fundamental protein structure – in 1951 also fueled the race to determine DNA structure.

Several teams of scientists both in the UK and US started competing with each other. They built models and used Rosalind Franklin's famous "X-ray crystallography" to understand the DNA's structure.

Little did they know that the DNA structure would itself offer a way to understanding how genetic data is transferred through generations.

Rosalind Franklin perfected the necessary conditions to receive an exact diffraction image. She found that DNA prevails in two kinds – A & B – by managing the fiber's water content. Photo 51 captured the B variant of DNA, and she did it with a micro-camera!

In 1953, Rosalind Franklin left King's College. She shifted to the Birbeck University of London, where she pursued her RNA structure and the study of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

Professor J.T. Randall of the King's College London had permitted Rosalind Franklin to leave on one condition: she would stop her DNA structure research. This is why she turned back to coal studies.

In almost five years, Rosalind Franklin had published 21 comprehensive papers on different viruses. Her group even laid the groundwork for structural virology.

Illness And Early Death

In 1956, Rosalind Franklin was diagnosed with fatal ovarian cancer. However, she didn't stop her research; instead, she continued it for the next two years, even though she had gone through three experimental chemotherapy sessions.

She experienced ten months of remission. In this period, she worked continuously for many successive weeks until she died in 1958, at 37.

Four years later, Dr. Jim Watson, Dr. Francis Crick, and Dr. Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of the DNA structure.

Unlike Alexander Fleming, Rosalind Franklin's contribution went largely unnoticed and uncredited.

Nevertheless, she published credible research papers throughout her professional career. This includes 19 research papers on carbons and coals, 5 on DNA structure, and 21 others on virility.

Contribute To Science By Becoming A Chemist Like Rosalind Franklin

No matter how her story ended, Rosalind Franklin will always be remembered for her countless contributions to the field of science.

If you feel the same way about science and want to start your career in chemistry, look for a private tutor that can help you get there!

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