Rosalind Franklin is one of the most well-known scientists, not only for her work but also for her role in paving the way for future female chemists. Known for pioneering the discovery of the structure of DNA and the use of X-Ray, Franklin left a major mark on the scientific community. At a time when men dominated almost every industry, Franklin also broke down barriers, faced gender biases, and was an inspiration for women in science. Franklin was breaking glass ceilings before we even knew the phrase.

Rosalind Franklin’s Early Life

Rosalind Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London in 1920 to an affluent Jewish family. As a child, Franklin excelled in science and went to numerous schools to pursue her passion. She attended Cambridge University and earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. At Cambridge, she studied crystallography and X-ray diffraction. Early in her career, she got her start at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. Here, she worked with Jacques Mering a crystallographer who taught her about X-ray diffraction. Soon, Franklin used X-Rays in her work with crystalized solids to create images. Being a perfectionist, she quickly became a master in this art.

Her Career And Legacy

By 1951, Franklin was working with John Randall at King’s College in London. It was here, Franklin made the discovery that DNA has two forms, a wet and dry form. Her photo of the wet form became one of the most famous in history as it identified the structure of DNA. It took Franklin 100 hours of X-Ray exposure for her to refine the infamous photo.

A competing scientist disclosed Franklin’s photo of DNA without her permission and it was later used for the famous model of DNA created by Francis Crick and James Watson. The two were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, taking most of the credit for her findings. The two did include Franklin in a footnote of their findings but it was known that the work was primarily based off of her photo. Franklin had passed away a few years before the Nobel Prize was awarded. Colleagues later noted that it wasn’t in her personality to fight these men or gain attribution.

In 1953, Franklin went to Birkbeck College to study the structure of RNA and the tobacco mosaic virus. Here, she was forced to study viruses and structural virology due to her agreement leaving King’s College, not to study DNA. It was at Birkbeck College that the scientific community would learn that Rosalind’s work didn’t just start and end with the study of DNA. Franklin and her colleagues helped start the study of structural virology making major progress in the area. Their work helped pave the way for many scientific achievements in the field, setting the stage for the future of structural virology.

A Life Too Short

In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Although she continued to work over the next two years, she had experimental chemotherapy as well as three operations. Franklin entered a 10-month remission but passed away from cancer on April 16, 1958. Franklin remained dedicated and continued to work just a few weeks before her death. It’s believed that Franklin’s continued exposure to X-rays during her years of study and her career possibly led to the development of her ovarian cancer. She spent hundreds of hours developing photos from X-rays during her work. At the peak of her career, Franklin passed when she was just 37 years old.

Her Battle With Gender Harassment

Cancer wasn’t the only battle Franklin would face in her life. The fact that Franklin’s work was used without her permission in Crick’s and Watson’s famous model of DNA is an unfortunate case of gender harassment. Known as the Matilda Effect, gender harassment, in this case, is when men are given credit for a woman’s work. Women in the 1950s were many times harassed openly, pursued without their consent or discredited as equal colleagues. Some of Franklin’s former colleagues spoke openly about the way she dressed and her moods and blamed them for distracting male co-workers. Her male counterparts made comments about how she didn’t dress feminine enough or wear lipstick. Comments having nothing to do with her work or their relationship as partners.

Possibly due to the era in which she lived, it’s been said by colleagues that Franklin was notably reluctant to share and publish her work until she was completely finished. Being a woman, she was afraid to fail or be criticized for her work. Thankfully today, there are many prominent female scientists in significant roles. Although the workplace in the science industry has gotten better for women, this stigmatism still remains in a lot of cases.

Today, there are two institutions that honor the work of Rosalind Franklin. The Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago and the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the United Kingdom are dedicated in her honor. Although she passed away when she was still a young woman, Rosalind Franklin left a tremendous impact on the scientific and medical communities. Her work and discoveries led to countless breakthroughs in the years that followed her death. Achieving everything she was able to as a woman, was an achievement equal to her important career. Franklin paved the way for other women scientists to come. She worked tirelessly under harsh conditions with male colleagues to further her cause and continue her pursuit of knowledge and discovery.