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Words Matter: Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin, born in Notting Hill, London, England in 1920, excelled from her early years. She studied at Cambridge University and earned her Ph. D. in Chemistry. Following her dream to be a scientist, Franklin worked at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris. Her coworker, Jacques Mering, was a crystallographer who introduced her to the basics of X-Ray diffraction. Franklin pioneered the use of X-Rays to create complex visuals of solids.

Franklin began working at the King’s College as an assistant researcher in the biophysics unit in 1951. There, she applied her techniques of X-Ray diffraction to study DNA, a choice that would highlight her name amongst other scientists of the day. She developed a machine to capture images of her specimens after long hours and was thus heavily exposed to X-Ray radiation. After studying and capturing the DNA, Franklin and her student discovered that there were two forms of DNA. Her photograph of the second form would later go on to be known as “Photograph 51”, the image that first defined the structure of DNA. This scientific breakthrough was made possible by Franklin’s unwavering determination, precision, preparation, and from over 100 hours of radiation exposure for the photograph to develop.

In 1953, Maurice Wilkins made a decision that would steal the fame that Franklin rightly deserveds. Wilkins gave Franklin’s Photograph 51 to James Watson and Francis Crick. The two scientists used the photograph as a basis for their model of DNA. They published it that year and received a Nobel Prize for that very model in 1962.

Franklin did not want to attract attention or controversy towards herself, so she quietly continued her career as a scientist. She left King’s for Birkbeck College and studied RNA and viruses on which she crafted and published 17 papers. Proving herself to be monumental once again, her work establishes the foundation of structural virology.

As a result of her dedication to science and her work, Franklin discovered that she had ovarian cancer, which was highly certain to be caused by her countless hours working with radiation. However, she persevered with her career, continuing to work through three operations and chemotherapy. Franklin died on April 16, 1958. Franklin’s contributions to science portray the beautiful but tragic irony of her X-Ray diffraction machine and her Photograph 51. Even past her death, despite her stolen credit by such not-so-subtle misogynistic intent, Rosalind Franklin remains one of the most influential women in science.

Written by: Sonal Mohan

Edited by: Skyler Basco, Yutika Pandit

Graphic: Teju Calambakkam

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