Rosalind Franklin Biography, X-Ray Crystallography, Facts

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a British scientist and X-ray crystallographer famous for her notable works in the determination of the molecular structure of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a component of chromosomes that serves to encode genetic information. She also worked on RNA, Graphite, and coal.  Although her works on viruses and coal were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were unrecognized during her life, for which Franklin has been referred to as the wronged heroine, the forgotten heroine, the dark lady of DNA, and the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology. 

Rosalind is famous for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA while she was completing research at King’s College London.  Franklin also contributed new insight into viruses’ structure, help to lay the foundation for structural virology. Franklin graduated in 1941 with natural sciences degree from  Newnham College, Cambridge, and then got an admission for a Ph.D. in Physical chemistry at the  University Of Cambridge.  Her research on coal helped Franklin earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1945. Franklin started pioneering work at Birkbeck on the molecular structures of viruses by working under John Desmond Bernal. Her team member Aaron Klug continued Franklin’s research on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982.

Birth25 July 1920
Birth NameRosalind Elsie Franklin
Birth PlaceNotting Hill, London, England
Famous ForStructure of viruses, Structure of DNA,Structure of coal and graphite
FieldsPhysical Chemistry, X-Ray Crystallography
ThesisThe physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal
Doctoral StudentsJohn Finch, Kenneth Holmes
EducationSt Paul’s Girls School
Death 16 April 1958
Resting PlaceWillesden United Synagogue Cemetry

Early Life:

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in 50 Chepstow Villas, Notting Hills, London, on 25 July 1920  into an influential and affluent British Jewish family. Her father, Ellis Arthur Franklin, was a liberal merchant banker and teacher at Working Men’s College; her mother was Muriel Frances Waley.  Franklin was the elder daughter and the second child of five children. Rosalind’s parents helped settle Jewish refugees from Europe who had escaped the Nazis, specifically those from the Kindertransport.

Rosalind Franklin’s childhood was full of gaining knowledge and learning new things. In childhood, Franklin demonstrated a particular aptitude for mathematics and physical sciences. She excelled in these subjects and developed a strong foundation in scientific principles. Rosalind Franklin’s family supported her educational pursuits and encouraged her intellectual growth.

Personal Life:

Franklin was best described as an atheist. Her lack of religious faith did not stem from anyone’s influence but from her thinking. She developed her skepticism as a young child. Her mother used to say that Franklin refused to believe in the existence of God. Franklin had no romantic relationship with anyone and always kept her deepest personal feelings a secret. After her younger days, she avoided close friendships with the opposite sex.


From early life, Rosalind showed exceptional academic abilities. At six, she joined her brother Roland in a private day school in West London, Norland Place School. She also developed an early interest in hockey and cricket. At nine, Rosalind entered a boarding school, Lindores School for Young Females in Sussex. The school was near the seaside, and the family wanted a suitable environment for her sensitive health.

At 11,  Franklin went to St Paul’s Girl’s School In Hammersmith, west London. It was one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught chemistry and physics. At school, she learned Latin, Science, and sports. Rosalind also learned German and became fluent in French, a language that was later useful for her. She got good grades in classes and won annual awards. Franklin’s only educational weakness was in music because of hearing problems and tonsillitis. Franklin passed her matriculation in 1938 with six distinctions, winning a university scholarship. Franklin’s father asked her to give a deserving refugee student the scholarship.

Also Read: Paul Ehrlich Biography


In 1938, Rosalind attended Newnham College, Cambridge, and studied chemistry within the Natural Sciences.  In 1941, Rosalind received second-class honors in her final exams. The distinction at college was accepted as a bachelor’s degree in qualifications for employment. Cambridge began awarding titular MA and BA degrees to women in 1947, and the previous women graduates retroactively received these degrees. In her final year at Cambridge, Rosalind met a French refugee Adrienne Weill, a former Marie Curie student who significantly influenced her life and career and helped her improve her conversational French.

Rosalind received a research fellowship at Newnham College, with which she enrolled in the physical chemistry laboratory of the University Of Cambridge to work under the supervision of Ronald George Wreyford Norrish, who had won the  Nobel Prize in chemistry. Norrish’s behavior was not good, so she left working with him. In her one year of work with him, Franklin had little success. She resigned from Norish’s lab in 1942 and fulfilled the National Services Acts requirements by working as an assistant research officer at the  British Coal Utilisation Research Association. 

Career And Research:

Working On Coal:

Rosalind studied the porosity of coal using helium to determine coal density. She discovered the relationship between the slight constrictions in the coals’ pores and the porous space’s permeability. By concluding that substances were removed in order of molecular size as temperature increased, she helped classify coals and accurately predict the performance of different types of coal for fuel purposes and the production of wartime devices such as gas masks.  Franklin’s contributions at BCURA yielded a doctoral thesis–she received her Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1945  and published five scientific papers.

X-Ray Crystallography:

After World War II, Franklin began searching for different jobs. Adrienne Weill, who had returned to France, helped her to secure a position in Jacques Mering’s lab at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat in Paris. She learned to analyze carbons using X-ray crystallography at the lab and became very proficient. Her work explaining the structures of graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbons helped form the basis for developing carbon fibers and new heat-resistant materials. It earned her an international reputation among coal chemists. She was also happy with the collegial professional culture of Laboratoire Central and formed many lifelong friendships there.

Though she enjoyed working in France, Franklin began finding a position in England in 1949. Her friend, a theoretical chemist Charles Coulson, suggested her extend x-ray diffraction studies of biological macromolecules. In 1950 Franklin received a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship to work in John T. Randall’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College London. Randall had initially planned to build up a crystallography section for Franklin and let her work on analyzing proteins. At the suggestion of  Maurice Wilkins, Randall asked Rosalind to investigate her studies on DNA.

Contributions To The Structure Of DNA:

Franklin took clear X-ray diffraction photos of DNA and quickly discovered that two forms of DNA, wet and dry, produced very different pictures. The wet form of DNA was helical in structure, with the phosphate group on the outside of the ribose chains. However, her mathematical analyses of the dry-form diffractions did not indicate a helical structure, and Franklin spent over one year trying to resolve the differences. By early 1953 she had concluded that DNA is a double helix.

Meanwhile, at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick were working on a DNA model. They were not in close communication with Rosalind. In January 1953, they took crucial information about DNA’s structure from one of her x-ray diffraction photos of DNA shown to them by Maurice and from a summary of her unpublished research work submitted to the Medical Research Council. James and Francis never told Rosalind that they had seen her research materials. They did not directly acknowledge her work when they published their classic announcement in Nature in April 1953. Francis later admitted that Franklin was just two steps away from realizing the correct DNA structure in the spring of 1953.

Structure Of RNA:

Franklin continued exploring another major nucleic acid, ribose nucleic acid, a molecule as crucial to life as a DNA molecule. She again used the X-ray crystallography technique to study the structure of the RNA virus, the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Her meeting with Aaron Klug in early 1954 led to a successful collaboration for her research.  In 1955, Rosalind published her first significant works on TMV in Nature, describing that all TMV virus particles were the same size. Franklin assigned the study of the complete structure of TMV to her Ph.D. student Holme. In 1956, Rosalind and Caspar individually published complementary papers in the 10 March issue of Nature, in which they proved that the RNA in TMV is coiled along the inner surface of the hollow virus.

Summarizing Achievements Of Rosalind Franklin:

Rosalind Franklin achieved several notable accomplishments throughout her career. Here are some of her key achievements:

X-ray Diffraction Studies: 

Franklin’s pioneering work in X-ray crystallography and meticulous X-ray diffraction studies provided crucial evidence for the structure of DNA. Her X-ray image, known as Photo 51, was a breakthrough in understanding the helical nature of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin: DNA’s Double Helix Confirmation:

Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data, along with her interpretation and analysis, played a vital role in confirming the double helix structure of DNA. Her work provided critical insights into the arrangement and spacing of the DNA molecule’s components.

Contributions To Coal Research:

Before her DNA research, Franklin made significant contributions to the study of the microstructure of coal. Her research in this field helped advance the understanding of carbon structures and the properties of coal.

Virus Structure Elucidation:

Franklin made significant contributions to the field of virology by investigating the structures of various viruses, including the tobacco mosaic virus. Her studies provided valuable insights into the architecture and properties of these infectious agents.

Molecular Structure Of RNA:

Franklin’s expertise in X-ray crystallography extended to the study of RNA (ribonucleic acid). Her research on the molecular structure of RNA molecules helped shed light on their function and role in cellular processes.

Impact On Scientific Methodology:

Franklin’s rigorous approach to experimental design, data analysis, and interpretation set high standards for scientific methodology. Her meticulous attention to detail and commitment to accuracy are influential in scientific research today.

Posthumous Recognition And Legacy:

Despite not receiving the Nobel Prize for her work on DNA, Franklin’s contributions have gained increasing recognition in recent years. She is widely regarded as a pioneering scientist who made substantial contributions to the field of molecular biology and the understanding of DNA’s structure.

Rosalind Franklin And Nobel Prize:

Rosalind Franklin never received a Nobel Prize for her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for their work in elucidating the double helix structure of DNA.

It is widely acknowledged that Franklin’s research, particularly her X-ray diffraction studies and her famous X-ray image known as Photo 51, provided crucial insights into the helical nature of DNA. However, her contributions were only partially recognized during her lifetime. Many scientists and scholars have since argued that Franklin’s work played a significant role in the discovery and should have been acknowledged by the Nobel Committee. However, Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, and Franklin passed away in 1958, before the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of DNA’s structure.

Rosalind Franklin Death And Burial:

In mid-1956, while on a work-related tour to the United States, Rosalind suspected a health problem.  An operation on 4 September 1956 revealed two tumors in her abdomen.  Even while taking cancer treatment, Franklin continued to work, and her group published seven papers in 1956 and six in 1957. Franklin returned to work in January 1958 and was promoted to Research Associate in Biophysics on 25 February. She fell ill again on 30 March and died a few weeks later, on 16 April 1958, in Chelsea, London, due to secondary carcinomatosis, ovarian cancer, and bronchopneumonia.

She was buried on 17 April 1958 in the family plot at Willesden United Synagogue Cemetry at Beaconsfield Road in  London.

Rosalind Franklin Awards:

Some notable awards and recognitions given to Rosalind Franklin include:


Rosalind Franklin was 37 years old when she tragically passed away on April 16, 1958.

Rosalind Franklin is famous for her significant work in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Her research in X-ray crystallography and her famous X-ray diffraction image, Photo 51, provided crucial evidence for the double helix structure of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin was sometimes referred to as the “Dark Lady of DNA” due to her significant contributions to DNA research being overshadowed and underrecognized during her lifetime. Her crucial role in discovering the structure of DNA was often overlooked or downplayed by her male colleagues.

Rosalind Franklin’s research and X-ray diffraction studies, particularly her X-ray image known as Photo 51, provided crucial evidence for the helical structure of DNA. Her work confirmed the presence of a double helix and the arrangement of its components.

Yes, Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction studies and analysis led her to conclude that DNA had a helical structure. Her X-ray image, Photo 51, provided critical evidence of the helical nature of DNA.

The discovery of the structure of DNA was a collaborative effort. James Watson and Francis Crick are credited with proposing the double helix structure of DNA based on various sources of data, including Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images. It is important to note that Franklin’s contributions were instrumental in their understanding of DNA’s structure.

Watson and Crick, aided by Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction images, proposed the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. Their model explained how DNA’s two strands are connected through base pairing, forming the iconic twisted ladder structure. This discovery changed our understanding of genetics and laid the foundation for advancements in molecular biology.

Rosalind Franklin did not have a husband. She was never married.

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