Rosalind Franklin

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Rosalind Franklin (25 July 1920–16 April 1958) was a British crystallographer and biophysicist. She is probably best known for her association with the team that solved the structure of DNA, although the exact extent of her contribution is contested.


Franklin had a long career in crystallography, studying the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and establishing many of its properties, but she is best known for her work in acquiring diffraction patterns for DNA and RNA. Her results, specifically a diffraction pattern known as "Photo 51" were later used by Francis Crick and James Watson as a basis for determining the helical structure of DNA.[1] It was her colleague Maurice Wilkins who saw the potential importance of this diffraction and drew Watson and Crick's attention to it.

Franklin unfortunately lived in a time where casual sexism was prevalent, although she was lucky enough to work in an institution that was progressive enough (at least by standards of the 1950s) to just about acknowledge her existence. However, even at Kings she was allegedly the victim of severe discrimination and (by Francis Crick's own admission) the pair were not always appreciative of her work and often took a "patronising" attitude towards her. In addition, even one of her own friends noted her penchant for getting on peoples' nerves.[2] Wilkins and Franklins' contributions were acknowledged only as footnotes in Crick and Watson's Nature paper after Wilkins turned down offers of co-authorship. In more recent times, crystallographers tend to co-author papers that they solve structures for. Their crystallographic contributions weren't even fully acknowledged until the 1960s, after several years worth of additional work by Wilkins and others managed to more conclusively confirm the helical structure.


From 1956 onwards, Franklin battled with numerous tumours - possibly due to her work with radiation sources in an era before they were at their safest. She took ill and died April 16, 1958 from secondary illness related to her ovarian cancer. It was only after her death that allegations of sexism began to arise. As Crick and Watson's fame grew for solving the great "mystery of life," Franklin's contribution became difficult to ignore - although it would have been difficult to properly cite it in the literature anyway, as Franklin had mostly kept Photo 51 hidden from Wilkins and never published it.

Nobel Prize[edit]

In 1962, Wilkins, Crick and Watson shared the Nobel Prize for solving the structure of DNA. This has been one of the most controversial points in the eyes of people who claim the Nobel Foundation actively discriminated against Franklin for being female. Franklin died in 1958 while the Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously, was awarded in 1962.

Additionally, her contribution to the structure of DNA was arguably modest; Photo 51 merely suggested a roughly helical shape, and didn't contain the detail often found in modern X-Ray data, which can pinpoint atoms[note 1] with precision. The majority of the work confirming the structure and "breaking" the genetic code was done by Wilkins and Crick. However, the interpretations of the specific measurements from the image were determined by Franklin, and filtered through Wilkins to Crick and Watson.


  1. Well, electron density.