This Day in Jewish History / A Pioneer of DNA Research Dies

Rosalind Franklin, British physical chemist who helped discover the structure of DNA, died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.

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Rosalind Franklin.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On April 16, 1958, Rosalind Franklin, the British-Jewish physical chemist whose experimental findings played a significant role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, died, at the tragically young age of 37.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born July 25, 1920, in London, the second of her parents’ five children. Her father, Ellis Arthur Franklin, from a prominent Jewish family (his uncle Herbert Samuel was the first British high commissioner of Palestine), was a merchant banker and a teacher. Her mother was the former Muriel Frances Waley. With a strong social conscience, family members, including Rosalind, helped during the 1930s in the resettlement in Britain of Jewish refugees from Europe.

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Rosalind was encouraged to pursue an education, and with a strong independent streak, showed interest in both sports and science. She attended Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge, where she received her bachelor’s in chemistry, and in 1945, finished her Ph.D. from the university. Her thesis was connected to war-related research she had done on the physical properties of coal.

Franklin spent three happy years, 1947 to 1950, working in the Paris lab of Jewish- Russian chemist Jacques Mering, where she picked up her knowledge of X-ray diffraction, a method then used for discerning the molecular structure of crystals. Partly because of family pressure, however, she returned to Britain, where she found a position on the team of physicist John T. Randall, at King’s College, London. He gave responsibility to Franklin for researching the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a complex organic molecule that was already understood to contain the coded genetic information that forms the basis of development of all organisms.

Unfortunately, Randall failed to make it clear that Franklin would have to work together with a veteran researcher, Maurice Wilkins, whom she could not stand. At her insistence, apparently, they did their work separately.

At the same time, Linus Pauling, at Caltech, and James Watson and Francis Crick, at Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, were also in the race to come up with the structure of DNA. Franklin’s style was very methodical, so that she would not publish until she had conclusive empirical results to prove a thesis.

Watson and Crick, on the other hand, were highly intuitive and also gregarious. They tried several times to get Franklin to cooperate. She always rebuffed them; one of those times, in January 1951, Watson then ran into Wilkins, who showed him “Photograph 51,” an X-ray image of DNA made the year before by Franklin.

Watson immediately understood that the image depicted a double-helical form. He rushed back to Cambridge, and within a month, he and Crick had come up with their now-legendary model of DNA’s double-helix form, and published it in a brief article in Nature. In 1962, they received the Nobel Prize for their discovery, together with Wilkins.

Franklin was not eligible: She had died five years earlier.

Rosalind Franklin learned in 1956 that she had ovarian cancer, and over the next two years, she went in and out of remission, before dying on this date in 1958.

Because it was many years before Watson, in his 1968 book “The Double Helix,” acknowledged Franklin’s role in his and Crick’s discovery - they never even told her that they had been given access to Photograph 51 behind her back - and because his description of her in that book is otherwise condescending and sexist, many have seen her as something of a feminist victim, who was denied proper credit for her work because of her gender.

Reviewing Brenda Maddox’s biography of Franklin in The New Yorker, however, in 2002, Jim Holt noted that though Franklin made Photograph 51, she had gone nine months without appreciating its significance when Watson laid eyes on it. Even when he and Crick announced their theory of the double helix, Franklin pooh-poohed it. Furthermore, Franklin was a respected researcher who received much recognition for her work during her lifetime, even if denied the Nobel Prize.

In recent decades, Rosalind has received many posthumous honors, and been a subject of both books and dramatic presentations.