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Rosalind Franklin: The Genius Who Was Sidelined

When you hear the word DNA, the first image that pops into the mind is a helical structure wound around another similar helix. This simple structure that resides in our cells, was a hard task for the scientists to decipher. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery in the field of physiology but there is a name that history overlooked despite the contributions to this discovery. That name is Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was a British scientist who is known for her work in X-ray crystallography and diffraction studies. Franklin performed X-ray diffraction experiments on coal, carbon, and biological samples like DNA and viruses. Rosalind had a natural interest and knack for science since she was little and paved her path in the field.

What is DNA?

DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic Acid, which is the genetic material of most living cells, i.e. it is passed on from parents to offspring. DNA comprises a sugar (deoxyribose), phosphate, and nitrogenous bases. At the time of the search for genetic material, scientists proved DNA was in fact the passing link of information through generations.

What did Rosalind Franklin contribute?

By the year 1945 Franklin had completed her PhD and had started working in a laboratory in Paris. In the year 1950, she received a fellowship at the John T. Randall's Biophysics Unit at King's College London. Here, she worked on the X-ray diffraction analysis on the samples of DNA. Rosalind along with her colleague Raymond Gosling found that the results of the experiments pointed out that the analyte must have a helical structure where the phosphate must be oriented on the outside surface of the sugar moiety.

Double helical structure of DNA

Why did she not get credit?

Though it can only be speculated, it is known that Rosalind was suggested the task of X-ray diffraction of DNA by Wilkins when John Randall asked her to work with proteins. The miscommunication led to Franklin believing her work was to be conducted alone along with graduates. During the year 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson were working on a theoretical model of DNA in a laboratory in Cambridge. In the same year, Wilkins provided the results of Franklin's work to Watson and Crick. Her results and evidence were important for their work however Franklin was not aware of the circumstances. Although there have been certain remarks that the photograph of the result was shown to Watson with her approval, only the three scientists went on to achieve the Nobel in 1962.

The stories can take many turns, what is important is she did not get enough credit, as much as her colleagues did. Some articles state that she was not the "victim" as it is portrayed, however, it perfectly raises the issue of the erasure of women in STEM and other fields.

Her name might have gone unnoticed at the time but her work did not.


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