Rosalind Elsie Franklin

The Chemist Who Unraveled The Structure of Double Helix

The 25th of July marks the birth anniversary of Dr. Rosalind Franklin — a remarkable woman who pursued her dreams and beliefs, and made revolutionary contributions in the fields of medicine, biology and agriculture. While we remember her and draw inspiration from her work and the way she handled adversity, we should reflect on how we can persevere and in following our own dreams. 

Rosalind Franklin was best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA which is regarded as one of the greatest discoveries in science. A discovery that became key to understanding the blueprint of life being passed on from generation to generation in organisms. In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was jointly awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their findings concerning the double helix molecular structure of the DNA. The foundational research for this discovery was that of Rosalind Franklin’s, whose contributions were recognized much later and are better known today. 

Dr. Franklin was tasked to research the structure of DNA when she joined the research lab at King’s College London. As an intelligent, experienced and adept scientist, she created better equipment and put in an enormous work in her quest to unravel the structure of DNA molecules. The first important contribution she made was her discovery of the 2 types of DNA: Type A and Type B. She further pursued X-Ray crystallography to get various images of the molecular structure during her time there. Her most famous being, Photo 51, wherein she imaged diffraction patterns from X rays passing into crystals of DNA and obtained an X pattern of some sort. This later became a cue for a helical structure of DNA molecules. The difficulties and risks she faced can be best understood by the fact that Photo 51 needed 100 hours of exposure due to limitations of the equipment during that time. Her research at King’s College London was later used by Wilkins, Watson and Crick to arrive at conclusions on the molecular structure of DNA.

Today it is difficult to completely understand the environment that she would have faced. There was a very small proportion of women scientists and staff at King’s College London. She later went on to continue working at Birkbeck College, where she plunged herself into research on the structure of viruses. Her colleague in this research, Aaron Klug, also later went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1982. 

Life had dealt her an unfair hand when she was diagnosed with cancer and when she died at the young age of 37. It was a disease that was caused in all probability by the vast exposure to radiation during her DNA related research.

So let’s celebrate her and her contributions. A person who loved science and the entire process of research. A woman who devoted her entire life for this love and for what it could do to humanity. Let’s celebrate this woman who in her short life has laid down an example which women in science around the world will look up to for inspiration. A true inspiration.

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