Rosalind Franklin at work in the laboratory
Published: 9 August, 2012
by LEWIS WOLPERT
Rosalind Franklin became a famous scientist – mainly after her early death – because her work led to the discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson that the structure of our genetic material, DNA, was a double helix.
She used X-rays to determine the structure but failed to provide a correct interpretation.
Her contribution has been controversial as some have argued that it has been undervalued.
Other books have been written about her work, particularly The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, but the very illuminating My Sister Rosalind Franklin, written by her younger sister Jenifer Glynn, focusses on her family, social and personal life, and draws upon the many affectionate letters she wrote to her parents and siblings.
Franklin was born in 1920 into an established Jewish family – her father was a merchant banker – and grew up in Notting Hill.
She was a precocious child, and when told about the existence of God asked how it was known that He was not a She.
Being argumentative and outspoken were her characteristics. At 11 she went to St Paul’s Girls’ School where her intelligence and manipulative skills were already evident.
Teachers, compared to her friends, did not value her.
In spite of her fears she got a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge to study chemistry, but war broke out the following year.
Contrary to her father’s view, she did not think it right to leave university and contribute to the war effort as her siblings were doing.
When she started research in Cambridge there was a government instruction that scientists had to contribute to the war effort and she became employed on a project on the structure of coal in order to determine its best use.
She was able to use this study for a PhD, but she sometimes found it dull.
Franklin was politically committed to the left and made a number of good friends who helped with accommodation, one of her main problems.
With the war over, she spent four very happy years in Paris, living in a bohemian room without a bath for two of them.
Here she learned the techniques of X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of a variety of compounds including coals and some plastics.
She spent her spare time climbing in the Alps, cycling and playing tennis.
Her letters about climbing are vivid, but rarely mention her work in science. She never seemed to have a boyfriend and usually lived alone.
Then came the two years at King’s College which were to make her famous.
She accepted, with many doubts, a fellowship in 1951 to work on a biological problem, the structure of DNA, though she knew no biology.
While she made a fundamental technical contribution to biology by providing an understanding that our genetic material, she was not that interested in biological problems and did not herself make the conceptual leap of arriving at the double helix.
Franklin was a very good scientist, but maybe not a great one.
She was shocked that at King’s women were not allowed in the senior common room, and she got on badly with her colleague Maurice Wilkins, as it was not clear whether he was in charge of her work. She was fierce, while Wilkins was more silent and hated argument, and it was he who called her “the dark lady”.
But her research went well and she obtained excellent X-ray patterns of DNA.
Their interpretation is a controversial subject as they were shown to Jim Watson without her permission, and he and Crick interpreted the pattern in terms of the famous double helix.
But she had no quarrels with Crick and, indeed, sometimes stayed with him and his family.
She spoke little to her family about the DNA discovery but was delighted to leave King’s for Birkbeck College in 1953 to work on the structure of viruses, research that she continued until her death.
She died of ovarian cancer in 1958, aged just 37. Her tombstone bears the inscription: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind.”
But there is nothing about DNA, just as there was little reference to her contribution when Crick, Watson and Wilkins won a Nobel prize in 1962.
Franklin is remembered by facilities named after her at King’s, in Cambridge and at Birkbeck.
Her sister sums up her life perfectly: “Rosalind became a symbol, first of an argumentative swot, then of a downtrodden woman scientist, and, finally, of a triumphant heroine in a man’s world. She was none of these things, and would have hated all of them.”
• My Sister Rosalind Franklin by Jenifer Glynn. Oxford University Press, £14.99
• Lewis Wolpert is Emeritus Professor in Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London