At the turn of the 20th century, scientists around the world raced to discover the secrets of human life. By the 1920s they settled on a combination of acid and sugars – Deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA to the rest of us). It was, they were sure, the molecular building block of all living things. What they had yet to understand, was what it looked like. And for another thirty years, they would continue searching. Until a female researcher named Rosalind Franklin took a photograph that would change the world’s understanding of DNA forever.
British-born Franklin began studying physics and chemistry at an early age. While her father had hoped she would become a social worker, the strong-willed young woman went on to pursue a Ph. D. in physical chemistry from the University of Cambridge in 1945 – defying familial, social and professional constructs that restricted opportunities for women in the mid-1900s.
Soon after graduating she began working in a laboratory studying X-ray diffraction technology, an imaging process that uses electromagnetic waves to determine the arrangement of atoms. Franklin’s lessons in imaging would later prove useful for a fellowship she took at King’s College. It was there that she would take Photo 51, an image that showed plainly what scientists had been trying to figure out for years: the DNA molecule was made up of two interwoven strands of atoms.
Her efforts laid the foundation for the discovery of the double-helical shape of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. This part of the story is quite controversial as some say Photo 51 was used by Watson, Crick, and colleagues without Franklin’s knowledge or permission. And, because the photo is understood to be the basis for the two men’s correct modeling of DNA – something that would win them a Nobel Prize in 1962 without mention of their female counterpart’s contribution to its discovery.
Not long after taking the photo, Franklin went on to conduct research at Birkbeck College – much of which was published in a highly respected journal called Nature. Sadly, her life and career was cut short by illness when she passed away in 1958. Not even 38 when she died, Franklin would never fully know the contribution her research made to the fields of science and medicine, to aspiring researchers and students, and to women and girls worldwide.
Though she never won any formal awards, Franklin’s intellect and inquisitiveness gave way to one of the most significant scientific developments of the late 20th century. Not to mention, her strong will gave her the courage to follow her dreams in the face of barriers and biases – a sense of conviction that other notable female scientists have applauded since her passing. Of them, only 16 have ever won a Nobel Prize in the fields of science and medicine (that’s 16 of the 313 given out to-date!)
In Rosalind Franklin’s spirit, let’s encourage this next generation of female science whizzes and self-identified lab nerds to quadruple that number. Let’s show them their curiosity and passion matters. I’ll accept the challenge if you will…
Cover image courtesy of Watching C Beams.