A woman scientist from Cambridge University published an article in the April 25, 1953 on the journal Nature about the molecular structure of DNA. However two male scientists had written another article on the same subject in the same issue of the magazine. Those male scientists – Francis Crick and James Watson – got all the credit. The woman, Rosalind Franklin, vanished into history.
Rosalind Franklin (born 25th July, 1920) was born into an affluent family, but being a woman, she faced many difficulties. After school, she went to Cambridge University to study science in 1938. But though she passed her exams in 1941, she could not get a formal degree, as Cambridge did not give degrees to women (it would do so only after 1947). But she went on to finish her PhD in 1945.
She later went to study X-Ray crystallography in Paris. This was the technique that scientists were using to find out the physical structures of complex bio-molecules. The experience she gained helped her get a position as a scientist at the Medical Research Centre (MRC) at Cambridge University in 1951.
However, she faced many difficulties there. The director of the MRC, John Randall, had asked her to do experiments to find the structure of DNA. However, Maurice Wilkins, who had been working on the same project, was very upset. This led to intense rivalry between them.
Franklin had made many X-ray photographs of DNA crystals. The best by far was Photo 51 (above [from Wikipedia], taken 1952). Had it remained with her, she would have decoded the structure. Unfortunately, the picture (or a copy) fell into the hands of Maurice Wilkins.
Wilkins showed the picture to Francis Crick and James Watson on 30 January, 1953. They were also working to solve the structure of DNA, and they too disliked Rosalind Franklin. Working fast, by 7 March, they had solved the structure – the famous double helix. Eternal credit would go to them, Franklin was sidelined.
Franklin had meanwhile planned to give up her DNA research. She joined the legendary crystallographer J.D. Bernal to study the structure of viruses. There she formed a team, which would go on to discover the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV). However, her health was failing fast (she had ovarian cancer), and she died on 16th April, 1958, aged just 37.
Wilkins, Crick and Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962. As the Prize can only be given to living people, and because her work wasn’t taken seriously, her contribution was never acknowledged well enough. That changed when Watson wrote his immensely popular book, The Double Helix, in 1968.
Watson’s unfair attitude towards Franklin irritated many. The writer Anne Sayre wrote a book that clarified Rosalind Franklin’s actual role in the discovery. Unpublished manuscripts of Franklin show that she had more or less solved the structure of DNA herself. It’s a mystery that she did not publish her data in time.
Nevertheless, Franklin is now known as the fourth (and equal) contributor to the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure. The Royal Society, the US National Cancer Institute and Groningen University of the Netherlands have created prizes for women scientists in her honour.