Rosalind Franklin: Neliti Face of Science 007

Neliti’s 7th Face of Science is the woman who unlocked the secret of life, DNA. A gifted woman whose incredible pioneering work of science was unrecognised while she lived.

Neliti’s 7th Face of Science is the woman who unlocked the secret of life, DNA. A gifted woman whose incredible pioneering work of science was unrecognised while she lived.

Rendition of Rosalind Franklin by Lukas Kutschera

In real life, heroes do not wear capes. They only wear brave faces when dealing with adversity. Among these unsung heroes is British chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Elsie Franklin, whose research and discoveries were central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal, and graphite. There is little doubt that her research provided the basis for the modern understanding of genes. However, during her lifetime, she was never recognised for these vital contributions to the betterment of humanity. This is why she is often referred to as the “wronged heroine,” the “dark lady of DNA,” the “forgotten heroine,” a “feminist icon,” and the “Sylvia Plath of molecular biology.”

Birth, childhood, and school years

Born on July 25, 1920, into a wealthy, well-connected, upper-class family in London, England, Rosalind Elsie Franklin was the second of five siblings. Her father, Ellis Arthur Franklin, was an investment banker, while her mother, Muriel Frances Waley, was the daughter of a lawyer. They were from an influential family of Anglo-Jewish scholars, leaders, and philanthropists who upheld the importance of education and service.

Until she was nine years old, which was when her sister Jenifer was born, Rosalind had only brothers – an elder brother David and two younger brothers Colin and Roland. They helped Rosalind understand competition, sports, and other typically boyish pursuits, which she embraced even more than her brothers.

In fact, Rosalind was not typically girlish, pushing aside her dolls to pick up a book to read instead. She also loved being creative with different crafts and photography. As a grown woman, she would use these artistic and artisan skills to first make blueprints, and then make her own molecular models and equipment.

When she was six years old, Rosalind, along with her brother Roland, enrolled at a school near her home, West London’s Norland Place school. At this time, her interest in hockey and cricket came to life. Rosalind’s aunt, Helen Bentwich, referred to her six-year-old niece as “frightfully smart.”

When she turned nine, Rosalind was sent away to Lindores School for Young Ladies, a boarding school in Bexhill, Sussex. Her parents hoped that the location of the school by the sea would help her delicate health.

Subsequently, as an eleven-year-old in 1931, Rosalind entered St. Paul’s Girls’ School for her high school education. St. Paul’s, an academically strict school that focused on preparing its students for careers, not just marriage, soon discovered Rosalind’s exceptional talents in maths and science. In fact, she was fascinated by physics and chemistry. She wrote to her father, Ellis, in the summer of 1940, “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life.”

The story goes that when asked to choose a book for a school prize, 15-year-old Rosalind chose Arthur Eddington’s New Pathways in Science, which included quantum theory, subatomic energy, and group theory. It was as if she already sensed her future lay in physical science.

Her Latin and athletics skills were also recognised and respected. Moreover, hiking and foreign travel became lifelong passions for her, and the vacations of the Franklin family often consisted of walking and hiking tours.   

Rosalind’s talents flowed also into a flair for languages; she was excellent in French, good in Italian and passable in German. But it turned out she did not have a good ear for music. St. Paul’s Music Director, Gustav Holst, once said that Rosalind had improved her musical skills to the point of “almost [singing] in tune.”

As her friends and peers noticed, Rosalind was always full of confidence in her capabilities and less-than-empathetic with people who were not smart. A childhood friend recalled that Rosalind laughed out loud when something stupid was said, giving not a thought to the humiliation felt by the person. This undisguised arrogance became her Achilles heel in later life.

Teenage Rosalind: A scientist ahead of her time

Rosalind, at the young age of 16, decided that she would become a scientist. Her mother commented that “all her life, Rosalind knew exactly where she was going, and at sixteen, she took science for her subject.” This was during a time when science was considered a male domain. However, despite facing discrimination against educated women, Rosalind managed to get through the admission exam for the University of Cambridge. Her father, who was also a volunteer teacher and Vice Principal at the Working Men’s College, opposed women attending college and refused to pay for her tuition. After much pleading from Rosalind’s mother and aunt, he eventually allowed her to enrol at the all-female Newnham College at Cambridge in 1938.

Life at Cambridge was tough as World War II raged on with German forces bombing British cities. Despite the danger, Rosalind continued her studies and also volunteered as an air raid warden. During this time, she met Adrienne Weill, a Ph.D. student of Marie Curie, who was accepted by Cambridge as an academic refugee in 1940. Rosalind was introduced to Adrienne through her participation in one of Adrienne’s lectures at Cambridge. Their connection grew stronger as they connected through science and politics. It was this relationship that provided Rosalind with her major career break a few years later.

As the war began to spread across Europe, Rosalind’s father begged her to defer her studies and lend a hand in the war effort. Her mother convinced her father to pay for her second year at Cambridge, and Rosalind went on to complete three years of lectures and research work. However, she underperformed in her final exam due to her perfectionist trait, which led her to spend too much time composing perfect answers and left her no time to complete the whole exam in the same standard. Despite this, Rosalind was privately informed that she had scored the best marks in physical chemistry and was awarded a research fellowship, funded through a grant by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to conduct research in physical chemistry at Cambridge.

The University of Cambridge did not accept women as full members until 1948, which meant that it took seven years for Rosalind to be awarded her Bachelor Degree, despite passing the exam in 1941. Furthermore, in a male-dominated world of physical science, Rosalind’s male colleagues resented her for having a direct and frank approach to life and for refusing to be conventionally feminine. Her doctoral supervisor, the future Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ronald Norrish, disliked her and belittled her as he considered women inferior to men. Rosalind “despised” Norrish, who drank heavily and behaved in an insufferable manner. Their clash began after she discovered a structural error in the project he assigned her, and he refused to accept her research findings and demanded she repeat the experiments.

Rosalind left the Cambridge research project a year later, unhappy with her hostile work environment, and found another research opportunity at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA). During the four years she worked there, she published five papers, along with critical observations on the density and porous nature of coal. Her research focused on examining the properties of different coals and other carbons, leading to uncovering pores in coal at a molecular level. This discovery led to a classification of coals and a better understanding of their performance as an energy source. Her observations were useful for the war effort as well, as coal was a vital component of the gas mask, used for its high absorption capabilities. Her observations are so relevant and timeless that they are still cited today.

Later, Rosalind’s research and subsequent papers on the microstructures of carbon filters led to the use of carbon composites in the construction of aircraft and spacecraft. This research became the foundation of her doctoral dissertation, and in 1945, Rosalind received a doctorate from Cambridge.

The French connection

As the war ended, Rosalind, with her doctorate in hand, began seeking different work. Adrienne Weill, the French scientist from Rosalind’s Newnham College days, had returned to France and was helping her to find a position in Paris. Adrienne introduced Rosalind to Marcel Mathieu, the director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. He was impressed with Rosalind’s work and offered her a position as a “chercheur” in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. There she met Jacques Mering, a Lithuanian-born, naturalised French engineer whose expertise in the fields of X-ray crystallography and mineralogy were widely known.

Working with Mering from February 14, 1947, to 1950, Rosalind learned X-ray diffraction techniques from him at the State Chemical Laboratory in Paris. Subsequently, her research focused on structural changes that graphite formation brings to heated carbons. This study was useful for the coking industry. Working with Mering, she became an accomplished crystallographer, applying X-ray diffraction techniques to defectively crystalline materials like coal.

She also enjoyed the collegial, professional culture she came into contact with at the laboratory during the four years she worked there and formed a number of longstanding friendships. She said that the years in France were the happiest years of her life, living a simple life on her modest earnings. She enjoyed the freedom of French life, the intricacies and sophistication of French cuisine, and the beauty of the French language she excelled in speaking. The unbiased way of French thinking that she imbibed would make it very difficult to accept the prejudices and discrimination prevalent in the conventional life of England she was returning to in 1950.

Nevertheless, she felt the need to return to England and find a job back home. Her friend, Charles Coulson, a theoretical chemist, suggested that she should focus on X-ray diffraction studies of large biological molecules. By 1950, as she turned 30, Rosalind had become an international expert on carbons, with a significant number of publications in her name in peer-reviewed journals.

Return to England and life at King’s College, London

Upon her return to England, Rosalind contacted Birkbeck College in London, where biological structure was an active program. She applied for an open position but was turned down. Extending her search to other colleges in England, she learned of the biologically oriented structural work being conducted at King’s College in London at the time, under the stewardship of Sir John Turton Randall, the famed English physicist and biophysicist, who had made outstanding contributions to science, including radar, and who was appointed Head of King’s College Physics Department in 1946.

Charles Coulson encouraged Rosalind to meet with Randall and set up the meeting for her in March 1950. Randall was immediately impressed with her gifted capabilities and invited her to work on the DNA project in his Unit, which was then handled by an experienced experimental X-ray researcher Maurice Wilkins, who was studying DNA by X-ray crystallographic techniques. Ironically, Wilkins had initially encouraged Randall to interview Rosalind. Randall planned to engage Rosalind in creating a crystallography unit in his department.

And so, Rosalind received a three-year Turner and Newall Fellowship to conduct research at King’s College. Unfortunately, a misunderstanding arose between Rosalind and Wilkins from the beginning, and Randall was partly responsible for the negative situation. Wilkins’ DNA research work was turned over to Rosalind in his absence without his knowledge. She was also instructed to take over the authority of Raymond Gosling’s doctoral advisor at the department. Upon Wilkins’ return, he perceived the situation as Rosalind having ousted him, leading to an awkward situation, as he was a senior scientist. Their personalities also played a role in worsening the situation, with Rosalind being quick and forceful, while Wilkins was shy and reticent, avoiding confrontation.

Rosalind studied the DNA structure with X-ray diffraction alongside graduate student Raymond Gosling, resulting in the discovery of a previously unknown second type of DNA called “B-DNA.” This discovery led to Rosalind realizing that earlier X-ray studies of DNA were less useful, as B-DNA was not a known factor then. However, the institutional culture at King’s College, which prohibited women from the dining and social gathering venues, coupled with the uncomfortable work environment, compelled Rosalind to seek other opportunities.

Despite her deep interest in the research, she decided to stop working on DNA and leave King’s College. She informed Randall that she would be leaving in January 1953, and he made it difficult for her to transfer her Fellowship to Birkbeck College, which had accepted her application. He agreed to the transfer on condition that Rosalind promised not to carry out any more experiments on DNA and to leave the research on DNA off her radar. Rosalind also had to leave her Photo 51 behind, which she instructed Gosling to hand over to Wilkins upon her departure.

Francis Crick, James Watson and Rosalind Franklin’s discoveries

Nearby King’s College was the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge, where Francis Crick and James Watson were also engaged in DNA research similar to Rosalind’s. Their initial attempts at cracking the DNA structure went astray, and their three-stranded, inside-out model was rejected by Rosalind. Watson and Crick were instructed to keep away from DNA research but resumed their research when Linus Pauling showed interest in the DNA structure.

The King’s College research group complained to the Head of Cavendish Laboratory, Sir Lawrence Bragg, that Watson and Crick were trespassing on their research field. At the time, Bragg instructed Watson and Crick to keep away from DNA research. However, when their rival, American chemist and biochemist Linus Pauling, showed interest in the DNA structure in early 1953, Bragg allowed Watson and Crick to resume their DNA research. Close on the heels of receiving Photo 51, and without Rosalind’s permission, Wilkins showed it to his longtime friend Crick. As Watson remembered later, “The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.” The cross-shaped pattern of spots on the photograph could mean just one thing to Watson: DNA has a helical structure. He admitted in his 1968 book, The Double Helix, that Rosalind’s photograph was pivotal to solving the DNA issue.

However, the concept of a helix was hardly adequate for Watson and Crick to make a breakthrough. They needed exact observations rendered by X-ray crystallography. Rosalind herself provided those numbers to them, unintentionally of course, in a short, informal report that was among the internal reports of the Medical Research Council, a British agency for funding life sciences. The report had condensed most of Franklin’s unpublished work on DNA, including the exact measurements of the molecule. Scientist Max Perutz, as the Cavendish Lab representative to the Council, had a copy of the report, and when Crick requested to see it, Perutz gave it to him as it was not confidential. When Randall was made aware of it, he was furious because it was “a questionable act” to allow an “unacknowledged competitor” to see unpublished work.

Thus, it is undeniable that Watson and Crick obtained the data they wanted in a dishonest manner, without informing King’s College and without getting Rosalind’s permission to interpret her data. She was a stickler for protocol, and they just ignored it. Watson and Crick never disclosed to Rosalind that they had seen her publications, nor did they give direct credit to her work when they published their classic discovery in Nature, the famed British weekly multidisciplinary scientific journal. Due to the customary disdain towards women in the male world of science, Rosalind was not given proper recognition for her momentous contribution to this discovery. She was merely listed in the acknowledgements section along with other scientists. But not a word was said about her game-changing contributions. Worse still, Watson and Crick included a footnote to say they were “stimulated by a general knowledge” of Rosalind’s and Wilkins’ unpublished reports when, in reality, the foundation of their work was Rosalind’s Photo 51 and her discoveries.

It is unknown if Rosalind had realised that Watson and Crick used her information to discover the structure of DNA. But if she did, she never complained or showed she knew by word or deed. This was probably due to the dignified and refined upbringing she had. In later years, however, Crick admitted that Rosalind was “two steps away” from discovering DNA’s true structure in the spring of 1953. He also confessed that the data in the report helped him to make a critical conclusion that DNA has two chains running in opposite directions. He said in a 1961 letter to Jacques Monod, the French biochemist who won a shared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965, “However, the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin, who died a few years ago.”

Rosalind moves on from DNA research

By March 7, 1953, Crick and Watson had cracked the DNA code and made their discovery. A few weeks later, in mid-March 1953, Watson and Crick invited Rosalind and Wilkins to Cambridge University to view their DNA model. As soon as Rosalind and Wilkins saw the model, they accepted that it must be the correct thing. They had no objection to the model being published as the sole work of Watson and Crick. They also agreed to separately publish the supporting data in the names of Wilkins and Rosalind.

On April 25, 1953, there was a celebration at King’s College, in honour of the three articles published in Nature. A notable absentee was Rosalind. She was no longer concerned with DNA. She was now at Birkbeck and had other priorities.

Nobel Prize snatched from Rosalind

In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of DNA’s molecular structure, resolving one of the most vital of all biological riddles. The name of Rosalind Franklin was not included in the Nobel Prize, and the reasons for excluding her are still unclear.

The fact that Rosalind passed away before the prize was awarded is pointed out as a reason, but the stipulation against posthumous awards was not instituted until 1974. There is also a Nobel Prize stipulation that states “in no case may a prize amount be divided between more than three persons.”

From King’s College to Birkbeck College and Rosalind’s contribution to virology

In the spring of 1953, on March 14, at the invitation of John Desmond Bernal, an Irish scientist who pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology, Rosalind moved to Birkbeck College, a constituent college of the University of London.

It was, in reality, a more congenial work environment for her, and many students who attended college were working people who impressed Rosalind with their commitment to study. Also, having matured as a scientist, she was now beginning to trust her intuition more.

Settling in there, Rosalind set up a research team to study the structure of viruses. Her team included future Nobel Prize winner Aaron Klug, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes.

During the next five years, Rosalind and her team published many papers on structural virology, laying the foundations for the field of structural virology.

She began her research with tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), which was the first disease to be established as from a virus, back in the 1890s. Thus, it was the most logical subject to be chosen for analysis through the emerging science of X-ray crystallography, which Rosalind had engaged so spectacularly in her DNA studies.

Thereafter, she extended her techniques to other plant viruses that could be studied in the same way. This included turnip yellow mosaic, tomato bushy stunt, pea streak, potato virus, and ultimately, human viruses.

As Rosalind expanded her research structure to human disease, she focused on the deadly Polio virus. Although American physician Jonas Salk had created the first successful vaccine against Polio in the early 1950s, Polio was still a major killer in London and across the world.

With Polio having been crystallised in 1955, she focused on confirming and expanding its structure, using parallels between animal and plant health. In fact, she used her knowledge of plant viruses to illustrate the structure of the deadly Human Poliomyelitis virus, similar in its structure to Turnip yellow mosaic virus.

Shortly before her death, Rosalind and her team, including Dr. Klug, launched research into the polio virus. However, the tragic illness that overcame her prevented her from completing the study. She was acknowledged by her colleagues, Aaron Klug and John Finch, on the structure of Poliomyelitis virus in their paper in 1959.

Despite Rosalind’s growing reputation in research and her many impressive published papers, she was compelled to fight for status and pay. In 1957, the research grant Rosalind had received from the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) expired, and she received a year’s extension until March 1958. Then she applied for a new grant and received a three-year contract with a reduced salary, while her request for the rank of principal scientific investigator was denied.

In spite of being humiliated in this manner, Rosalind supported her team. She wrote to her ARC supervisor that “in no other laboratory, either in this country or elsewhere, is any comparable work on virus structure being undertaken.”

Meanwhile, her work with TMV’s genetic material (RNA) required collaboration with other virus researchers across the world, particularly in the US. She made two long visits to the US in 1954 and 1956, establishing a network of contacts from different parts of the country, including virologist Robley Williams, cellular biologist Barry Commoner, and biochemist, virologist, and Nobel laureate Wendell Stanley.

Bernal, who led the Crystallography Department at Birbeck, was deeply impressed by Rosalind’s work and her work ethic. He described her work as “beautifully executed research, carried out with effortless skill, and [a] gift for organizing research projects”.

Towards the end of her life, Rosalind had become friends with Crick and his wife, Odile. She visited them and stayed at their home sometimes and joined them on vacations too.

Throughout her 16-year career, Rosalind steadily documented and published her research. She produced 19 articles on coals and carbons, 5 on DNA, and 21 on viruses. Her research studies irreversibly changed the perception of physical chemists on the microstructure of coals and related materials. She is still cited today on her findings. In five years, Franklin published 17 papers on viruses, and her group laid the foundations for structural virology. Between 1955 and 1958, she published 14 papers on viruses and completed the research work on three other viruses before death came to her. Her colleague Aaron Klug submitted the research for publication after she passed away.

Awards and honours

The Royal Institution, based in Britain’s City of Westminster, an independent charity committed to scientific education and research and to connecting people with the world of science, recognised Rosalind’s expertise in virus structures. The Institution’s director honoured her with a request to construct large-scale models of rod-shaped and spherical viruses for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair Science Exhibition.

By the mid-1950s, she was at the top of her field, preeminent in X-ray diffraction, and sought after as a speaker for scientific conferences throughout Europe and the United States.

With her research and knowledge being increasingly appreciated during the last few years of her life, Rosalind Franklin received more invitations to address conferences around the world. Had she lived longer, her virus research would have earned her numerous awards and other professional recognition. She was often the only woman presenter at these conferences. 

Although denied the Nobel Prize, Rosalind’s scientific contributions were recognised by many academics. 

In 2004, the Chicago Medical School renamed itself the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, and she has had numerous academic programs, auditoriums, and labs named after her. The university’s logo was declared to be Photo 51, and “Life in Discovery” as its motto by President and CEO Dr. K. Michael Welch.

Newnham College Principal Dame Carol Black installed a plaque commemorating Franklin at the Eagle Pub in Cambridge in 2013. 

Brenda Maddox, an American writer and biographer who spent most of her adult life living and working in the UK, wrote a 416-page book about Rosalind titled Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, published by HarperCollins in October 2002. 

Rosalind Franklin was honoured by having an asteroid found in 1997 named after her by Australian amateur astronomer John Broughton at the Reedy Creek Observatory in Queensland, named “9241 Rosfranklin” in her honour.

The UK-built robot named Rosalind Franklin was scheduled to take off on a mission to Mars in 2022. However, with the West suspending all scientific cooperation with Russia, engineers had to redesign the project to include only European and American components. As a result, the robot would now launch in 2028 and would land on Mars in 2030.

Personal life of Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind had a Jewish upbringing and imbibed the values she was taught. As her biographer, Brend Maddox said in an NPR interview in October 2002, “[Rosalind] “didn’t do anything that would invite criticism … [that was] bred into her.” Although she rejected religious belief, she acceded to her grandfather’s wishes and joined the Jewish Society during her first term at Cambridge.

She enjoyed travelling and had a lot of fun with her family on their frequent vacations in Cornwall and Wales. She visited the US several times for work, where the Americans loved her sense of humour and her sunny side. William Ginoza of the University of California, Los Angeles, later recalled that she was the opposite of Watson’s description of her.

She had a special love for hiking and almost died once when she slipped and fell down a slope while hiking in the French Alps with Jean Kerslake in 1946. France was the country closest to her heart after her first visit to Paris in 1929, her grandfather’s place of escape from the bitter English winters. She fell in love with the country, its people, food and language. She felt the French way of life was “much superior” to the English way of life. Subsequently, when she lived there from 1947-50, Rosalind immersed herself in the lifestyle of the French people. In Paris, her life took on a continental tone. She was fluent in French, enjoyed shopping at the butcher’s and greengrocer’s, titillating her tastebuds with melting French pastries and losing herself in the dazzling array of romantic clothes in the stores. She made Cristian Dior’s “New Look” her own, wearing exquisitely cut dresses with figure-hugging waistlines and long billowing skirts. She loved French culture and regularly attended films, plays, lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions with friends.

Rosalind had a deep dislike for the name “Rosy” because she had a great-aunt named Rosy. However, people at King’s College used to call her “Rosy” behind her back. James Watson, in his book “The Double Helix,” refers to Rosalind almost entirely as “Rosy.” To other people, she was just “Rosalind,” and her family called her “Ros.” When a visiting American friend, seated at Crick’s table at a pub in Cambridge, asked her how she should address her, she replied, “I’m afraid it will have to be Rosalind,” adding, “Most definitely not Rosy.”

Cupid did not bring any luck to Rosalind

Rosalind’s overbearing father, Ellis Franklin, expected his children to follow the rituals of their Jewish faith and be committed to its obligations, especially the issue of not marrying out. In Rosalind’s case, she did not marry or have children.

Her close friends and others who knew her were guessing that she was infatuated with the handsome, flirtatious Jacques Mering, the director of the Paris laboratory where she worked. However, because he was married, although separated from his wife, Rosalind clammed up as she felt there could be no future for them together. Mering also conceded he found her “intelligence and beauty” fascinating. Mering had been reduced to tears when he visited her in the hospital later and afterwards destroyed all her letters.

However, Rosalind did not trust intimate relationships after her younger days and kept her deepest personal feelings to herself and kept away from close friendships with the opposite sex. Rosalind’s closest personal relationship appears to have been with her former post-doctoral student, Donald Caspar (who passed away at 94 years on November 27, 2021). The closeness might have been built on his consistent championing of women scientists. Rosalind had visited him at his home in Colorado in 1956, following her tour of the University of California, Berkeley. She is later known to have said that Caspar was one “she might have loved, might have married.” Writing to her American friend Annie Sayre, she had described Caspar as “an ideal match.”

Even now, people ponder why someone as smart, gifted, beautiful, and vivacious as Rosalind never married. Some thoughts put forward are:

  • She was an extremely determined and driven personality and wouldn’t have wanted to devote time to anything but her research.
  • She worked in the lab on weekends and nights. Her meticulousness caused her to redo and recheck. Those traits made it difficult to let in the role of a family.
  • Many professional women in decades past had no role models who successfully mixed career and family, so they often chose one or the other.
  • She would have known research would always come first, and marriage would take second place.
  • She might not have been happy with a partner less committed to his own research. Such a marriage may not have survived.
  • She yearned for a relationship and would probably have considered it if she had met the right person at the right time.
  • Even now, it is still difficult for a woman scientist in most fields to make the commitment to marriage and family, at least until she is well-established in her field. 
  • She was too committed to her work. Also, at the time, few men would have tolerated a wife whose work was all-consuming, and probably more prestigious than theirs.
  • Rosalind Franklin’s personality would have made it harder for a relationship to work. And she had a hard time leaving her work at the end of the day, physically and mentally.
  • Her personality largely influenced her decision not to mix science and family.
  • It would have been difficult for her to give her emotions and time to a marriage, given the intensity of attention she gave her vocation.

Rosalind’s views on religion

Rosalind Franklin was born into a British Jewish family that was not overly religious. Thus, even as a young child, she did not always agree with the idea of God. Her mother remembers how she refused to accept religious beliefs and refused to believe in the existence of God. She had remarked, “Well, anyhow, how do you know He isn’t She?”

So, she is probably best described as an agnostic, as she believed in her own reasoning rather than anyone else’s influence. Instead, she expressed a humanist belief that the most important work was in bettering the world for others and generations to come. In her own words, “In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best, we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future), is worth attaining … I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.”

Nevertheless, she did not abandon Jewish customs. She took Hebrew classes while her schoolmates went to church.

Personality of Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind, from a very young age, showed extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity and spirit.

Her mother, Muriel, a model traditional Jewish wife, wrote over ten years after Rosalind’s death, “When Rosalind was upset she would figuratively curl up—like touching the fronds of a sea anemone. She hid her wounds and trouble made her withdrawn and upset. As a schoolgirl, I always knew when something had gone wrong in school by her silences when she got home.”

Muriel also knew well how her daughter could be devastatingly blunt, which could sometimes be humiliating to the person at the other end: “Rosalind’s hates, as well as her friendships, tended to be enduring.”

People who worked with her and knew her well also knew she did not suffer fools gladly. Her American friend, Anne Sayre, said, “Absurdities exasperated her.” She responded to such people and situations with “fierce and stubborn indignation.”

She was a sociable person when not working on her research. Throughout her working life, she would make it a point to spend her lunch break interacting with male and female colleagues. She had an easy, friendly manner and was well-liked by most people. But once she headed back to the lab, she shut out all lightheartedness and focused totally on her work.

At King’s College, her colleagues considered her “too French” in her attire, her intellectual pursuits and her temperament. She was extremely direct, purposeful and serious and had a habit of leaping into passionate debate. At these times she could be stubborn, argumentative and abrasive to the point of unpleasantness. However, she had many lifelong friends who considered her “bright, fascinating, witty, and fun.”

In France, her vivacity, stylishness, and youthful beauty led to many young men vying for her attention. But nothing came out of any of those encounters.

Rosalind is diagnosed with ovarian cancer

Rosalind was quite unaware of an impending deadly health issue until mid-1956 when, on a work-related visit to the U.S., while in New York, she had difficulty zipping up her skirt as her stomach was bulging.

Back in London, she consulted medical doctor Mair Livingstone, who was also her friend. Mair asked, “You’re not pregnant?” to which she retorted, “I wish I were.” The diagnosis of her tests was marked “URGENT.”

Rosalind underwent surgery for ovarian cancer on September 4, 1956. In total, she had three surgeries and experimental chemotherapy. She was hospitalised several times over the next 18 months and spent time convalescing with family and friends during the 10-month remission. The people she spent time with included her American friend Anne Sayre, Francis Crick, his wife Odile, with whom Rosalind had formed a strong friendship, and her brother Roland and his wife Nina and their family. Rosalind loved to be among her nieces and nephews who bolstered her spirits. She did not relish spending time with her parents, as her mother’s uncontrollable grief and crying upset her too much.

However, the cancer did not stop Rosalind from giving her all for her work. Her team worked hard alongside her, producing seven papers in 1956 and six more in 1957.

Those who worked with her noted how amazingly brave Rosalind was through the final stages of her cancer. Despite being unable to walk, she was determined to do whatever she could before she died. So, she practically crawled up stairways between laboratories at Birkbeck, determined that the cancer would not prevent her from working. Her commitment to her work with death staring her in the face made co-workers weep.

Moreover, Rosalind’s research group at Birkbeck was requested to build models of viruses for the Brussels World’s Fair. Rosalind died the day before the fair opened, where the five-foot-tall models drew great interest in the International Science Hall.

Even though she was at the end of her life, Rosalind did not stop helping others. She gifted £3,000 to her colleague Aaron Klug to free him from financial worries. Klug went on to win the 1982 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She also gave £1,000 each to two of her friends with young children to support.

Meanwhile, she fell sick again at the end of 1957 but was back at work in January 1958. She was promoted to Research Associate in Biophysics on 25 February.

She fell ill again on 30th March 1958. Rosalind Franklin died at the age of 37, on 16th April 1958, in Chelsea, London, of bronchopneumonia, secondary carcinomatosis, and ovarian cancer.

While other members of her family had also died of cancer, the incidence of gynaecological cancer is known to be disproportionately high among Ashkenazi Jews, the community to which Rosalind belonged.

Exposure to X-ray radiation is also considered to be a possible factor in her fatal illness. Once, in Paris, Rosalind had been prohibited from entering the laboratory for several weeks because her radiation monitoring badge showed she had been excessively exposed to X-rays. At King’s college, colleagues had observed she missed wearing the lead apron she was supposed to wear when the X-ray machine was in use. No one was willing to challenge her on flouting safety rules.

Curtain Falls on a Young and Promising Life

Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer in London on 16th April 1958. She was just 37 years old. She was buried in the Franklin family plot in the United Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, London.

The inscription on her tombstone reads:


John Desmond Bernal, one of Britain’s most well-known and controversial scientists and a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, spoke glowingly of Rosalind in her obituary. John Desmond Bernal, one of Britain’s most well-known and controversial scientists and a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, spoke glowingly of Rosalind in her obituary. He said,  “As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook.”  

“Her photographs were among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs.”

In his moving tribute, Bernal, who had always supported Rosalind’s work, commended “her single-minded devotion to scientific research.” He wrote that her career “was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook,” crediting her with “ingenious experimental and mathematical techniques of X-ray analysis” that brought her very close to singlehandedly unraveling the mystery of how life is transmitted from cell to cell, from generation to generation.

Sir Aaron Klug said, “Rosalind was not a feminist in the ordinary sense, but she was determined to be treated equally like anybody else.”

Rosalind’s family only realised her true eminence as a scientist when they read the glowing tributes paid to her in death.

Rosalind Franklin’s legacy

Rosalind Franklin left legacies in all areas of science she touched during her lifetime. But her legacies have become more personal, more compelling and far-reaching, in death.

In recent years, she has become legendary as a woman whose incredible scientific achievements were overlooked during her lifetime, mostly because she was a woman who dared to enter the male domain of science. In fact, her consistent conviction was that “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

She set high standards for herself and others, and diligently pursued answers to her questions despite the many obstacles she faced.

And for Rosalind Franklin, every day brought fresh obstacles, attempts to belittle her efforts and achievements, and a consistent trend of not recognizing the greatness of her work. If she realised that others cheated her of honour that should have been hers, she never showed bitterness. She just moved on and did her duty to mankind by using the gifts inherent to her.

She was an unsung hero, who gave of her best to the world, but got back from the world, anything but the best.  

Actor Christopher Reeve, who himself faced great tragedy in his life, once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a reporter at Breakthrough.

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