Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Wednesday of Ada Lovelace Week: Rosalind Franklin

Today's post is about another world-famous scientist -- one who should probably have won the Nobel Prize along with Watson and Crick for the discovery of DNA: Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin did other work as well, of course. She did a great deal of work on the structure of viruses, specifically the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, the first virus discovered, as well as on the structure of coal. But it is for her contribution to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA that she is now most well-known.

Rosalind Franklin was born on the 25th of July, 1920 in Notting Hill, London, to her parents Muriel Frances Waley and Ellis Arthur Franklin. She attended Newnham College, Cambridge for her BA, though she was only awarded a titular degree (a degree in title only -- women weren't allowed to have "real" degrees from Cambridge at the time, you see). Nevertheless, her PhD, which she received in 1945 for her thesis, entitled "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal and related materials," was awarded without stipulation. Thank heaven for small mercies, I suppose.

After World War II, Franklin went to Paris and worked at the Central Laboratory of the National Chemical Services (Laboratoire central des services chimiques de l'√Čtat) for three years before accepting a position at King's College in London. Because she had been working with X-ray imaging techniques in Paris, she was assigned to work with Maurice Wilkins and his student David Gosling, taking over the supervision of Gosling, and also the imaging portion of the early work they were doing on DNA. Using a high-focus X-ray microcamera which she modified herself, Franklin captured a series of images of DNA that were instrumental in the discovery of the structure and function of the molecule. (See here for the infamous Photo 51).

At this point, Watson and Crick were working over at Cambridge on the same thing, and there was friendly rivalry as well as collaboration between the two teams over the years. There has been a bit of controversy over this, but these days it's pretty well accepted that the real answer to the question "who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA?" is Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. Franklin's data were admittedly used by Watson and Crick in their hypothesis on the structure of DNA which eventually won them the Nobel Prize.

"Why, then, have I never heard of Rosalind Franklin?" you may ask. I know I did. The reason is that, unlike the other three, who shared the Novel Prize in 1962 for the discovery, Franklin did not. First and foremost, I suppose, this is because the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously. In a tragic turn of events, Rosalind Franklin died in 1958 of complications resulting from ovarian cancer. She was 37 years of age. Second is the reason why we are in need of a whole week's worth of posts on women in science: whatever other reasons may surface, I find it hard to believe that the fact of her being female didn't play a part in the strange absence of her name from my high school curriculum.

But I digress: Rosalind Franklin made a great contribution to science, and is even now being recognized for that. The National Cancer Institute now offers a yearly "Rosalind E. Franklin Award for Women in Science," and her portrait has been hanging next to those of Wilkins, Watson and Crick at the National Portrait Gallery in London for a decade now.

So hey, next time you mention Watson and Crick, don't forget about Franklin and Wilkins.

Now you know.

Tomorrow: Nina Schor.




Anonymous said...

thx so much i need some info for skool project. hehe :)
jayleih babeee!! xox
peace luv and happiness out to yall babes

michael123 said...

good information. i already knew half of it but you sure did teach me some things about rosalind. many thanks to you.
michael. yr 7. eltham high