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In Covid year, why ‘unsung heroine of DNA’ Rosalind Franklin needs to be remembered for more

On her 100th birth anniversary, a look at Rosalind Franklin's DNA image that helped three men win the Nobel, and her research on viruses and coal

Written by Kabir Firaque , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: July 25, 2020 12:46:18 am
Rosalind Franklin, Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin DNA, Rosalind Franklin 100th birth anniversary, kings college Rosalind Franklin Saturday is Franklin’s 100th birth anniversary. Credit: King’s College London

Since her death at age 37 in 1958, the British scientist Rosalind Franklin has been remembered mostly as the “wronged heroine of DNA”. And as a victim of male prejudice, deprived of the Nobel Prize that went instead to three men who had relied on her work to construct the double-helix structure of DNA.

In recent years, though, science historians and commentators have stressed all the other achievements she needs to be remembered for. Especially in 2020, when her birth centenary coincides with the Covid-19 pandemic. Franklin was one of the leading virologists of her time — and more.

Saturday is her 100th birth anniversary.

DNA breakthrough

In 1952, Raymond Gosling, a graduate student at King’s College London, took a historic X-ray photograph under Franklin’s supervision. Photo 51, as it is called, demonstrates the now-familiar, double-helix structure of DNA.

Four years after Franklin died of ovarian cancer, the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine went to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for their work on the structure of DNA. The Nobel is not awarded posthumously.

Rosalind Franklin, Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin DNA, Rosalind Franklin 100th birth anniversary, kings college Rosalind Franklin Photo 51, taken by her student Raymond Gosling under Rosalind Franklin’s supervision, shows double-helix structure of DNA. Credit: King’s College London

Wilkins was Franklin’s colleague at King’s College. He had shown Photo 51 to Watson, then at Cambridge, without Franklin’s knowledge. Her precise measurements, too, had reached Watson and Crick through “irregular routes”, Franklin’s biographer Brenda Maddox, now deceased, wrote in an article for Nature in 2003.

Watson and Crick used the knowledge gained from Photo 51, Franklin’s unpublished notes, and their own intuition to construct the double-helix structure of DNA. Wilkins improved on their model over the years, leading to the three sharing the Nobel.

Her other achievements

“During her short life, very few people outside science had heard of Rosalind Franklin. But since her death, she has become a legend. She is particularly famous for her work on the double helix structure of DNA, but she has also become a potent symbol of male prejudice,” science historian Patricia Fara of Clare College, University of Cambridge, told The Indian Express by email.

“Surely she deserves to be remembered differently?” Fara referred to the inscription on her grave: ‘Scientist: her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind…’

“The world is currently gripped in a pandemic, and her pioneering research in virology provided a crucial early step in the search for cures, vaccinations and tests. When she died, Franklin was a world leader in the field,” Fara said. “During the Second World War, she carried out research into coal and graphite that proved important for gas-masks, the PPE of that time.”

From 1953 until her death, she worked with John Desmond Bernal at Birkbeck College, heading a team that analysed the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. After mapping that virus, she went on to investigate polio.

“It is because of Franklin, her collaborators and successors, that today’s researchers are able to use tools such as DNA sequencing and X-ray crystallography to investigate viruses such as SARS-CoV-2,” Nature wrote in an editorial this week.

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Professional career scientist

Franklin did not know that three men would win the Nobel for constructing a DNA model relying on her evidence. “Still more fortunately, she had no way of foreseeing that she would be publicly denigrated in Watson’s bestselling book, The Double Helix (1968),” Fara said.

Watson was dismissive of Franklin in his book. For example: “Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place… Unfortunately Maurice could not see any decent way to give Rosy the boot.”

Fara described Franklin as a professional career scientist, whose aim was to increase knowledge, not score points off rivals. “Rosalind Franklin repeatedly fought to establish equality with men, but her top priority was academic success.”

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