By any measure, Rosalind Franklin was a remarkable person; that might have been because her family is equally noteworthy.

Her father's uncle, Viscount Samuel was the first practising Jew to serve the British Government. Her aunt was married to the Attorney General of the Palestinian Mandate. This aunt, along with another uncle was active in the Suffrage Movement. Her entire family was involved in the Working Men's College, one of the earliest establishments of adult education in the country.

In their spare time, the family helped Jewish refugees escape Nazism and settle in; they even welcomed two Kindertransport children into their home.

Taking all of this into consideration, it's no wonder that Rosalind Franklin would forge her path through life on her terms.

Born in an era when women didn't have the right to vote, Rosalind - never Rosie! - would fight for every shred of professional recognition... and sometimes for no reason at all.

Wildly intelligent, at times haughty and arrogant and, when she let her guard down, amiable, kind and sometimes given to wistfulness, Rosalind Franklin is as complex a person as the DNA molecule she helped all of us to understand.

Rosalind Franklin's Educational Background

Reading this article's introduction, you might have gotten the impression that Ms Franklin's family was well-connected politically, and that the family enjoyed financial stability. If so, you are absolutely correct. Her father was a merchant banker as well as a teacher; he had both the means and the desire to see all five of his children well educated.

Did her father approve of his eldest daughter pursuing a career in science?

Rosalind was treated to private education
Rosalind studied physics and chemistry at St Paul's Girls' School in London. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Chmee2

By some accounts, he disdained her chosen vocation and refused to support her. However, her sister says all of those stories are hogwash; Rosalind enjoyed the full support of her parents and family. To wit, when she earned a scholarship for academic excellence, her father urged her to find a refugee student to give it to while paying for her education himself.

Ms Franklin routinely earned awards at every stage of her academic career: in science, languages, sports... the only course she did not excel in was music. So badly did she do in that class that her teacher asked her parents if she might have suffered from some form of hearing loss.

Fortunately, musical ineptitude did not keep her from earning distinction in her other classes; she racked up six of them, all told.

With such marks, she had no trouble securing a place at Cambridge where she studied for three years, earning second-class honours for her final exams. At that time, women were barred from receiving Bachelor degrees but, when they finally did (in 1947), Rosalind was retroactively credited with that recognition.

That qualification earned her a research fellowship at Newnham College, working under Dr Ronald Norrish. He had no idea what to assign her to do. Between the lack of firm direction and Dr Norrish's boorish behaviour, it didn't take her long to look for opportunities elsewhere.

How different were Rosalind's approach and attitude toward education from Louis Pasteur's, the chemist who gave us the vaccine?

First Forays into the Lab

After the unfulfilling stint under Norrish's tutelage, Rosalind worked as an assistant research officer at BCURA - the British Coal Usage Research Association. Although she held a post in a lab in her former position, at BCURA, she actually had work to do.

Using helium to determine density, she studied coal's porosity, later helping to classify coal according to its various properties: how well it would burn and what happened on a molecular level as it did. That became the topic of her doctoral thesis, the degree she earned in 1945.

At that time, with the war ended, a world of opportunity opened up before her. Soon, with a bit of help, she landed a place at the Paris Laboratory of Chemical Services, on Jacques Mering's research team.

Mering was well-versed in X-ray crystallography; he taught his researchers how to apply X-ray diffraction to the study of amorphous research material. Rosalind found that this technique had the potential to expand the scope of experiments and how their results could be interpreted.

Working with the material she was most familiar with, coal, she published several papers which, today, are integral to our understanding of coal and carbon.

After three years in France, Ms Franklin was enticed with a three-year fellowship at King's College London... and promptly ran into trouble.

Footnote: it was Adrienne Weill, a former student of Marie Curie, who helped Rosalind secure her place on Mering's team.

Ms Weill tutored Rosalind in French ahead of her stay there but Ms Franklin and Mme Curie have other ties. Both were said to be frustrated with the lack of seriousness toward their work and both were initially snubbed for the Nobel Prize.

The unit's director neglected to inform his scientists about the personnel and workload shifts he implemented ahead of Rosalind's arrival. Scientists who had been working together suddenly found themselves reassigned and the work they were doing, work that they had made stunning progress on, was given to the newcomer.

That was the basis of most (all?) of the friction between Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins. Raymond Gosling, who had been working with Wilkins, was directed to assist Ms Franklin.

Rosalind finally gained recognition but only after she died.
Ms Franklin gained recognition for her work only after her death. Source: Wikipedia Credit: KiloCharlieLima

Discovering DNA Structure

For the relatively poor equipment available to them, Messrs Wilkins and Gosling attained remarkable results with their X-ray photography. When that project was assigned to the newcomer - a woman, at that! - they were decidedly not happy. Furthermore, those men had found an effective working rhythm and did not appreciate having to abandon it.

For those reasons, Rosalind suffered a lot of abuse. Still, a professional to her core, she set to work, applying the skills she learned in France - not just in setting up the equipment but in maintaining critical hydration of the specimens she examined.

That led her to discover there are two types of DNA: A and B. Chemists didn't fully unlock the secrets of A-DNA until some 60 years later but B-DNA seemed more accessible for study.

Director Randall, aware of the edgy tension in his lab, split the research. Franklin, true to her contrary nature, chose to study A-DNA, leaving Watson to discover B's secrets.

In many ways, Rosalind Franklin's temperament matched that of Joseph Priestley, the chemist who discovered oxygen.

Ultimately reconciling herself to both types of DNA having a helical structure, Rosalind drafted her manuscript and sent it off... exactly one day before Watson and fellow researcher Francis Crick built their model of B-DNA.

James Watson and Francis Crick

Using data similar to what the King's College team had, Cambridge University researchers Watson and Crick started building their model of B-DNA structure. Neither laboratory was aware of how far along in their work the other lab was.

Indeed, neither Crick nor Watson was aware that they were drawing directly from Rosalind Franklin's work to construct their model.

Ms Franklin tenure at King's was nearing an end; as she was preparing to move to Birkbeck, University of London, Wilkins sent his friends Crick and Watson a message that Franklin was leaving and that they could "put all hand on the pump". The implication is clear: with her out of the way, the men would fare better.

Another factor that no doubt helped those men take possession of Ms Franklin's work was Director Douglas' order that Rosalind's work must stay at King's; she was not allowed to take any of her notes or work with her. Wilkins 'inherited' all of her photographic evidence of DNA's structure, including Photo 51.

A few more handshake agreements between lab directors and researchers, and Rosalind Franklin was excluded from any credit her work would have garnered her.

Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for 'their' discovery of DNA's double-helical shape.

Rosalind liked working in a tidy environment
Ms Franklin preferred her work area to be tiny and well-equipped. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Jenifer Glyn via MRC

Debunking Myths Surrounding Rosalind

Unlike Alexander Fleming, the chemist who gave the world penicillin, Ms Franklin liked her workspaces clean and tidy. Thus, it was no surprise that, upon assuming her post at Birkbeck College, she would be dismayed at the condition her laboratory was in.

She made no secret of her displeasure at her new surroundings, claiming that moving from King's to Birkbeck was "like moving from a palace to the slums". Such blatant assertions, regardless of how on-point they were, marked Rosalind as arrogant, haughty and difficult to work with.

Still, we can measure the oppression she must have laboured under at King's by the conclusion of that 'slum' statement: "... but pleasanter, all the same."

It's hard to know whether her disposition formed because of her family's social position or, as a woman in a traditionally male field, she had to constantly fight for resources, equality and recognition. Or maybe it was just her personality.

Rosalind had a very direct way of speaking. She had no trouble looking anyone in the eye, often intensely, and she always spoke her mind. Furthermore, she was absolutely brilliant, usually outshining her male counterparts. That must have been unsettling to those on the receiving end of her glare and sharp tongue.

She never married or had children but that doesn't mean she never loved.

Jacques Mering was one early love affair but he was already married and had a mistress, besides. Donald Casper, an American biologist may well have been the love of her life. Her letter about him, written to a confidante, sounds wistful; she described him as an ideal match.

Another telling remark testifying to her longing came as cancer ravaged her body. Her abdomen swelled so that she looked ready to deliver a baby. "You're not pregnant?" asked the doctor. "I wish I were" she replied.

Rosalind died on the 16th of April 1958, leaving behind her a legacy that would forever change the world of molecular biology... and nobody gave her credit for it before her death.

What do you think: does Rosalind Franklin have a place on your list of famous chemists and their discoveries? Let us know in the comments below.

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