Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer who is best known for her work on the structure of DNA, RNA, and coal. She also performed cutting-edge research on the molecular structure of viruses that cause plant and human diseases.

Franklin was born in London, England in 1920. She studied physical chemistry at Newnham Women’s College at the University of Cambridge. During World War II, Franklin researched the physical chemistry of coal and carbon under the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. By studying the porosity of coal, she concluded that substances were expelled in order of molecular size as temperature increased. This work was important for accurately classifying and predicting coal performance for fuel and wartime production and served as her Ph.D. thesis.

After the war, Franklin accepted a position as a research fellow at King’s College London. During this time, she investigated DNA samples. She took clear x-ray diffraction photos of DNA and was able to conclude that the forms had two helices. Her work–specifically her image Photo 51–was the foundation of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery that the structure of DNA was a double-helix polymer, for which she was not cited or credited.

Afterward, she continued working with x-ray diffraction photos of viruses at the J.D. Bernal’s crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College and collaborated with virus researchers from around the world. She studied RNA of the tobacco mosaic virus and contributed to published works on cucumber virus 4 and turnip yellow mosaic virus.

During her career, she published 19 articles on coal and carbons, 21 on viruses, and 5 on DNA.

Awards & Recognition

  • 1935 – Received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity (with Frederic Joliot-Curie)
  • 1940 – Received the Barnard Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Science (with Frederic Joliot-Curie)
  • Was an Officer of the Legion of Honour.