Rosalind Franklin (Biophysicist/Physicist/Chemist/Biologist)

rosalind-franklin.jpgRosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) was a British biophysicist, physicist, chemist, biologist and X-ray crystallographer who made critical contributions to the understanding of the fine molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.

Franklin is still best known for her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA.

Her data, according to Francis Crick, was "the data we actually used" to formulate Crick and Watson's 1953 hypothesis regarding the structure of DNA. Furthermore, unpublished drafts of her papers (written as she was arranging to leave the unsupportive research situation at King's College London) show that she had indeed determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix.

However, her work was published third, in the series of three DNA Nature articles, led by the paper of Watson and Crick which only vaguely acknowledged her evidence in support of their hypothesis.

The possibility that Franklin played a major role was not revealed until Watson wrote his personal account, The Double Helix, in 1968 which subsequently inspired several people to investigate DNA history and Franklin's contribution. The first, Robert Olby's "The Path to the Double Helix", supplied information about original source materials for those that followed. After finishing her portion of the DNA work, Franklin led pioneering work on the tobacco mosaic and polio viruses.

She died at the age of 37 from complications arising from ovarian cancer.

Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London into an affluent and influential British-Jewish family.  Her father was Ellis Arthur Franklin (1894–1964), a London merchant banker and her mother was Muriel Frances Waley (1894–1976); she was the elder daughter and second of the family of five children.

Her father's uncle was Herbert Samuel (later Viscount Samuel) who was Home Secretary in 1916 and the first practicing Jew to serve in the British Cabinet. He was also the first High Commissioner (effectively governor) for the British Mandate of Palestine. Her aunt Helen Carolin Franklin was married to Norman de Mattos Bentwich, who was Attorney General in the British Mandate of Palestine. She was active in trade union organisation and women's suffrage, and was later a member of the London County Council.

Franklin was educated at St Paul's Girls' School and North London Collegiate School where she excelled in science, Latin and sports. Her family was actively involved with a Working Men's College, where Ellis Franklin, her father, taught electricity, magnetism and the history of the Great War in the evenings and later became vice principal. Later Franklin's family helped settle Jewish refugees from Europe who had escaped the Nazis.

In the winter of 1938 Franklin went to Newnham College, Cambridge. She passed her finals in 1941, but was only awarded a titular degree, as women were not entitled to degrees (BA Cantab.) from Cambridge at the time; in 1945 Franklin received her PhD from Cambridge University.

One of Rosalind Franklin's important contributions to the Crick and Watson model was her lecture at the seminar in November 1951, where she presented to those present, among them Watson, the two forms of the molecule, type A and type B, and her position whereby the phosphate units are located in the external part of the molecule.

She also specified the amount of water to be found in the molecule in accordance with other parts of it, data that has considerable importance in terms of the stability of the molecule. Franklin was the first to discover and formulate these facts, which in fact constituted the basis for all later attempts to build a model of the molecule. The other contribution include an X-ray photograph of B-DNA, that was briefly shown to James Watson by Maurice Wilkins in January 1953,  and a report written for an MRC biophysics committee visit to King's in December 1952 which was shown by Dr. Max Perutz at the Cavendish Laboratory to both Crick and Watson.

This MRC report contained data from the King's group, including some of Rosalind Franklin's and Raymond Gosling's work, and was given to Francis Crick — who was working on his thesis on haemoglobin structure — by his thesis supervisor Max Perutz, a member of the visiting committee. Maurice Wilkins had been given photograph 51 by Rosalind Franklin's Ph.D. student Raymond Gosling, because she was leaving King's to work at Birkbeck.

There was allegedly nothing untoward in this transfer of data to Wilkins, since the Director Sir John Randall  had insisted that all DNA work belonged exclusively to King's and had instructed Franklin in a letter to even stop thinking about it. Also it was implied by Horace Freeland Judson, incorrectly, that Maurice Wilkins had taken the photograph out of Rosalind Franklin's drawer. However, the B-DNA X-ray pattern photograph in question was shown to Watson by Wilkins — without Franklin's permission.

Likewise Max Perutz saw "no harm" in showing an MRC report containing the conclusions of Franklin and Gosling's X-ray data analysis to Crick, since it had not been marked as confidential, although – in the customary British manner in which everything official is considered secret until it is deliberately made public – the report was not expected to reach outside eyes". Indeed after the publication of Watson's The Double Helix exposed Perutz's act, he received so many letters questioning his judgment that he felt the need to both answer them all and to post a general statement in Science excusing himself on the basis of being "inexperienced and casual in administrative matters".

Perutz also claimed that the MRC information was already made available to the Cambridge team when Watson had attended Franklin's seminar in November 1951. A preliminary version of much of the important material contained in the 1952 December MRC report had been presented by Franklin in a talk she had given in 1951 November, which Dr. Watson had attended but not understood. This seems to be a rather tenuous claim.

There is a significant difference between the results Franklin achieved at the end of 1951 (at the time of the seminar) and those she held when editing the report – at the end of 1952. It was a year in which her knowledge substantially increased. This and more, Watson and Crick received the report from Perutz during February, 1953, a short time after Watson received Franklin’s type B photograph, no. 51. Thus, there is no doubt that the report helped them to analyze Franklin’s correct data, which explain this and other photographs.

The Perutz letter was as said one of three letters, published with letters by Wilkins and Watson, which discussed their various contributions. Watson clarified the importance of the data obtained from the MRC report as he had not recorded these data while attending Franklin's lecture in 1951. The upshot of all this was that when Crick and Watson started to build their model in February 1953 they were working with critical parameters that had been determined by Franklin in 1951, and which she and Gosling had significantly refined in 1952, as well as with published data and other very similar data to those available at King's. Rosalind Franklin was probably never aware that her work had been used during construction of the model, but Maurice Wilkins was.


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