Women in History: Rosalind Franklin

March is National Women’s History Month. As an ode to women in my field, and the National Women’s History Project to write women back into history, I’d share with you one of the most important women – no, scientists – of molecular biology.

You have probably heard about Rosalind Franklin, the university in North Chicago, Illinois. But do you know the woman behind the name?

Rosalind is the woman behind the discovery of the structure of DNA. Rosalind lived, and died, never fully realizing the impact how much her research would influence the world. She was the first to capture an image of the structure of DNA, which then went on to catapult work of James Watson and Francis Crick, the two most infamous names in molecular biology.

Rosalind graduated with her PhD from Cambridge at the age of 25. At 30, she discovered what was referred to at the time as the “B” form of DNA (now known as the double helix) using x-ray crystallography (image below) at the King’s College of London. One of her peers, Maurice Wilkins, shared this discovery – without Rosalind’s knowledge or approval – to Watson and Crick, which catapulted their publications on the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Rosalind's X-ray diffraction photograph of DNA, 1953 Photo courtesy of HarperCollins/NPR

Rosalind published her DNA “B” form crystallography images in Nature at the same time as Watson and Crick’s infamous publication.  She left King’s College of London shortly after this discovery and went on to Birkbeck College to study the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus.

Rosalind died at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer, which in retrospect was likely caused by the high amounts of radiation she was presented while fulfilling her research goals. Four years after her death, Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their findings, which was most definitely something that she had earned as well (and posthumously, it was agreed that she had great contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure).

Rosalind paved the way for so many female scientists; well, actually, for scientists in general. I can’t imagine what she went through as a woman studying atomic-level science in the mid-20th century. I feel lucky to be in academia as it stands now; women have made huge strides in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), we have a voice, and we (should be) equal. Yet we still have a long way to go. In engineering academia, women are outnumbered nearly 12:1 by men, and only a bleek 2.7% of full professors in engineering are women. I know it something that takes time; indeed, the number of women reaching full professor status has risen in the fields of science and engineering over the last decade. But we are still an outstanding minority. We are still not completely equal; the attitude toward women as educators and researchers at the post-secondary level is much different than that towards men. It takes emulating the strengths, strategies, and integrity of women like Rosalind that will help us as women push past barriers.


About megankillian

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. I love biomechanics!

Posted on March 4, 2010, in academia, science, Women. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very cool. Have you thought about doing a profile of Grace Hopper?

  2. First off, this: http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=240

    Second, it’s a really telling sign of how the trend of the men:women ratio isn’t too great that, of the 30 recruits we have today for our Organic chemistry weekend, I think there are 5 women (6:1… not as bad as 12:1, but even so).

    I think it’s getting better, but as you say, there’s still a long way to go!

  3. That is so cool! Thank you for sharing this!

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