The X-ray work of Rosalind Franklin, the missing lady of science, contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, but she was never recognized in her lifetime
Born in 1920 into a wealthy Jewish family, she showed from an early age both an ability and an attitude towards learning that excelled in science. When the time came, after studying at Nordland Place and St. Paul Girls School, she passed the entrance exam at Newnham College, located in Cambridge. This faculty is characterized by being all-female, where any woman who wants to pursue university studies can do so.
This series of consecutive events caused conflicting opinions in her family: on the one hand, her father, a conservative, did not take kindly to his daughter studying at the university, where at that time the presence of women in university classrooms was not common. However, she receives support from her mother, who encourages her to pursue what she is fighting for. This act of bravery paid off in 1941, the year Rosalind Franklin officially graduated with a degree in chemistry.
When Rosalind finished her time at university, the United Kingdom was embroiled in the Second World War. He got a position as an assistant in a large British organization devoted to the study of coal and its derivatives, which were later used to manufacture gas masks. At the same time, she prepared and completed her Ph.D., until in 1945 she received the title of Doctor of Physical Chemistry with her thesis “The Physical Chemistry of Solid Organic Colloids with Special Reference to Carbon.” This work provided him with the foundation and confidence to publish his later articles.
Her publications opened up new opportunities for her studies: just a year after receiving her degree, she traveled to France on the recommendation of Adrienne Weil, a student of Marie Curie, to work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Central Laboratory of the State Chemical Services in Paris. There he learned new innovative weather techniques, emphasizing X-ray diffraction, which he pioneered, as well as meeting William Bragg Jr. and Max Perutz, both known for their research and demonstrations in crystallography.
X-ray diffraction consists of the interaction of a beam of X-rays of a certain wavelength with a crystalline substance, where each substance produces its own diffraction pattern or imprint. This technique was perfected by Rosalind and was a turning point in 20th century science and in the research that Franklin and many other scientists would later carry out.
Rosalind remained in Paris under the tutelage of Bragg and Perutz until 1951 and during these years she published numerous works, in which we can highlight “The interpretation of diffuse X-ray diagrams of carbon” and “Acta Crystallographica”, both published in 1950.
After gaining experience in Paris, he returned to Britain, where he was offered a three-year fellowship at King’s College, University of London. There he met John Randall, the inventor of the magnetron, as well as Maurice Wilkins, a graduate and PhD in physics, with whom he joined the study of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.
In the first half of the century there were three major research groups in the world studying what would be recognized as the major research landmark of the second half of the 20th century, the DNA molecule: Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, at King’s College; on the other, Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology, USA; and finally James Watson and Francis Crick, molecular biologists, at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.
This latter laboratory was distinguished by the participation of great earlier scientists such as Thompson, father and son, as well as Maxwell and Rutherford. Its popularity made it a place for scientific experiments of great prestige in Cambridge.
As a pioneer and expert in x-ray techniques, Rosalind Franklin improved on the research Wilkins had conducted prior to her arrival on the team. In them, he attests to the existence of two different states of DNA: the state he calls A is the dehydrated state, while state B turns out to be hydrated. So poor was the relationship between Franklin and Wilkins that they each continued their work separately with a different state of DNA: Franklin would take Form A, while Wilkins would study Form B.
In turn, Pauling produced a physical model where he described how proteins fold into their secondary structure. This research was initially accepted because it needed mathematical support and imaging to confirm the theory. Pauling later confirmed this with several crystallographic studies that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry years later.
At the same time, Watson and Crick of the Cavendish Laboratory, both biologists, were aware of the importance that knowledge of the structure of DNA had for genetics, but had to rely on solid evidence, such as crystallographic studies of this molecule. Here Franklin’s acknowledged expertise in this field finally came into play.
A few years later, Wilkins took the first photograph of B-form DNA, which may have suggested an unconfirmed helical structure due to the confusion created by the photograph itself. Rosalind suspected an identical structure in the case of DNA in the A form, but later, in May 1952, with the help of her knowledge of X-ray crystallography, she obtained a sharp image that revealed the B form of DNA: a structure unmistakably helical , which was called “Photo 51”.
This important discovery was not immediate. Rosalind does not interpret or study the discovery that would make science history. It was Watson, visiting the King’s College laboratory, to whom Wilkins showed his partner’s discovery.
That photo was the last piece Watson and Crick needed to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
DNA structure puzzle. This picture, as well as studies, data and speculation from earlier scientists, took them through the three-dimensional physical construction of DNA’s structure to see how it worked. All this was done without Rosalind’s consent or knowledge.
At the same time, Rosalind Franklin focused on that picture which had attracted so little of her attention at the time. The image proved how the two forms of DNA, both A and B, are formed from a double helix.
This discovery led him to write three works, with “Crystallographica” notable in 1953 not only for explaining and interpreting his discovery, but also for being published one day before Watson and Crick completed their DNA model, which would put all the pieces together, publishing papers like “General Implications of the Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid,” explaining what would be one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history.
Despite the fact that Rosalind Franklin’s indirect involvement in the discovery of DNA is mentioned in quotation marks in these articles, she was unaware that Watson and Crick had access to her research and collected DNA data through her own colleague. , despite the publication of the book and in ignorance of his contribution to the discovery, he assumed a secondary role.
Some time later, Rosalind Franklin left King’s College to move to Birbeck College, where she made great discoveries such as viral RNA, as well as its structure, parameters and many other contributions, making her one of the most popular scientists of the time. Years later, he worked with Klug, a future Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, where, thanks to his discoveries in electron crystallography, he published numerous papers related to tobacco mosaic virus.
It wasn’t until 1958 when the research and work done over the years that X-ray exposure produced its inevitable effects on the human body. In his youth, he died of cancer, leaving a series of papers and works unfinished and not realizing that his research on DNA would be so relevant to modern science and its subsequent history.
In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their discoveries regarding the molecular structure of nucleic acids and their importance in the transmission of information in living material. When they receive the important award, they do not mention the work Franklin did, nor his key role in the study of the structure of DNA.
This omission generated a great deal of controversy in the scientific world. Years later, the three men admitted that without the help of the X-ray pioneer, their discovery would not have been possible.
Over time, books were published telling the story of the woman who provided the key to a puzzle that was solved against the clock. Among them stands out “Rosalind Franklin; The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox and “The Third Man of the Double Helix” by Wilkins.
Because of this, the young Rosalind Franklin, who provided irrefutable proof of DNA’s helical structure with X-ray Photo 51, was nicknamed the Missing Lady.
“Science and life cannot and must not be separated. For me, science provides a partial explanation of life. As it is, it is based on facts, experience and experiments… I agree that faith is fundamental to success in life, but I do not accept your definition of faith, the belief that there is life after death. In my view, the only thing faith needs is the belief that by striving to do the best we can, we will come closer to success, and that the success of our goals, the betterment of humanity today and in the future, is worth it to be achieved”. Rosalind Franklin, 1940