Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix

March is Women's History Month and we'd like to highlight a few amazing women in science over the next few blogs, starting with Rosalind Franklin. While you may not know her name, I'm sure you're more familiar with Watson and Crick. They were lauded for developing the model of DNA that we have now come to love and understand. In 1962, they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. But accolades aside, let's delve into Rosalind Franklin's history so you can truly comprehend how much she contributed to our understanding of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin was an X-ray crystallography expert at King's College London. X-ray crystallography is a unique technique that utilizes X-rays to explore the structure of a crystallized form of a substance. The X-rays diffract upon making contact with electrons. In this manner, you can generate a 3D structure based on the electron density for the item.
Upon her arrival at King's College London, she took over the X-ray crystallography project on DNA, creating some tension between herself and the former leader, Maurice Wilkins. She immediately began to improve the methodology and equipment, identifying two structural types of DNA. Franklin presented more and more data suggesting that the structure of the B form of DNA was actually helical.

By 1953, Franklin was submitting a few manuscripts at the same time Watson and Crick were working on their own DNA model (Linus Pauling was also investigating this). Franklin was due to move to Birkbeck College and left the project information behind, as King's College London's director insisted upon this.
At this time, Watson came by the college to talk to Franklin about Pauling's preprint of an erroneous model for DNA. Watson suggested they collaborate, but Franklin was angry at the implication she would need help to interpret her own data. Shortly after, Wilkins (who was at odds with Franklin) showed Watson the now infamous Photograph 51, an X-ray diffraction image of DNA. This photo helped convince Watson and Crick that both theirs and Pauling's model was incorrect, as the DNA backbone should actually be on the outside, with base pairs facing inward.
After arriving at Birkbeck College, Franklin's X-ray crystallography research focused on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV). Her paper in Nature stated that all TMV particles were of the same length, which contradicted the established model at that time. Sadly, Franklin passed away in 1958 from ovarian cancer and was thus, ineligible for the Nobel Prize in 1962 that was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins. Since then, Franklin has been recognized posthumously, with labs, buildings, and awards using her namesake. A college in Chicago was renamed from the Finch University of Health Sciences to Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Rosalind Franklin's story was also re-told in a TV movie entitled "The Race for the Double Helix".
Rosalind Franklin undoubtedly provided valuable insight and information that has generated the DNA model as we know it today. Although she was not properly acknowledged at the time, her story has become more widespread, and her contributions are now understood. Are there any female scientists that inspire you? Let us know here.

Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD.

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