Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Credits: Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London Images

Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction studies contributed to the double helix model of the molecular structure of DNA. Franklin had studied physical chemistry at Newnham College, Cambridge. She received her PhD in 1945 for research into the small-scale structures of coal and carbons. As a postdoctoral researcher in Paris, she became familiar with the use of X-ray diffraction as a method for analysing molecular structures. Working at King's College London, from 1951 to 1953, she applied this technique to DNA. Without her knowledge, one of the resulting X-ray images and a report on her work were passed on to Francis Crick and James Watson at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. This information helped the two Cambridge researchers to develop the double-helix model of DNA.

Later, Franklin investigated other structures, especially the tobacco mosaic virus. Diagnosed with cancer in 1956, Franklin did not live to see the Nobel Prize awarded to Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins, her former colleague at King's. Since her death, there has been debate over whether her contributions to the discovery of the double helix were properly acknowledged. Some of Franklin's friends and colleagues were particularly enraged by James Watson's portrayal of her in his 1968 account, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.