Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated” – Rosalind Franklin
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Since it’s discovery in 1869 and continuing to this day, science has been trying to decode the mysteries of DNA. Friedrich Miescher first noticed it when examining used-up bandages. In 1927 Nikolai Koltsov suggested that inherited traits might be passed down through some sort of “hereditary molecule.”

In the early ’50s James Watson and Francis Crick modeled DNA as the “double-helix,” and became household names because of this. Well, maybe they’re only household names if your household is a junior high science class, but they received wide recognition and a Nobel Prize for it.

Here’s the catch: Watson and Crick get popular credit for discovering that DNA is shaped as a double-helix, but they got that notion from one Rosalind Franklin. In 1951 Rosalind presented a lecture in which she related facts she had uncovered about DNA, a lecture at which Watson was in attendance. Watson and Crick also had controversial access to an x-ray image Rosalind had created called “Photo 51,” the first “photograph” of DNA.

"Photo 51," copyright Nature magazine, used under Fair Use

Ever since she was a child, Rosalind Franklin had a love of facts and wanted to pursue a career in science. She was accepted into Cambridge University in 1938 but in what is becoming a trend on this blog, her father refused to pay, believing a woman had no place in higher education. She made her way in thanks to a generous aunt and while there she studied coal and graphite. Her research there led directly to the development of Carbon Fiber, a high strength, high resistance, low weight fiber used in all sorts of materials today, including prosthetic feet.

Rosalind went on to work with King’s College in London, where she personally made great advances in x-ray diffraction techniques, the photographic technique needed to capture chemical compositions. This allowed her to capture “Photo 51,” which for the first time showed us the double-helix structure.

The double-helix is considered one of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century. With the knowledge of this structure, scientists gained an understanding of how genetic information is stored and copied in DNA, and how hereditary traits are passed down.

Watson and Crick received Nobel Prizes in 1962, but Rosalind received little recognition for her contribution, and debate continues as to how much credit she deserves for the double-helix discovery. Regardless, she remained curious until the end, studying the Polio virus until her untimely death in 1958. To this day she is an inspiration for female scientists everywhere.

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Women's History Month

Smithsonian Education Women’s History Resources. Navigate through an interactive gallery and explore photographs of some of twentieth-century America’s famous and influential women.