Rosalind Franklin: the grand old lady of DNA


If you are reading this, then the chances are you have an internet-enabled computer. And if you have an internet-enabled computer, then in all probability (in the hope that you are not a Bing-ling) you know that today would have been Rosalind Franklin's 93rd birthday – thanks to Google's doodle.

At Genome Biology, we find it heartening that Google has chosen to use its immense public platform to spread the word about Franklin, the British scientist whose research at King's College London played a key part in Watson & Crick's determination of the structure of DNA, and her life's work.

Earlier this year, we interviewed Franklin's PhD student, Raymond Gosling, about the road to the double helix – part of our DNA60 coverage. Gosling was not only Franklin's collaborator in the DNA research, but was himself the first person to crystallize genes, before Franklin joined the project. In addition, the famous Photo 51, widely revered as the most wondrous image in the history of science, was taken by Gosling, although it is frequently (semi-erroneously) credited to Franklin.

Gosling makes clear in his interview the invaluable contribution made by Franklin to the double helix discovery, in that her expertise was able to steer the King's team toward the production of high quality X-ray photographs where they had previously been fuzzy and indistinct. In particular, her careful preparation of DNA crystals at different humidities showed that DNA could exist in two forms, which should be studied separately in order to obtain optimal diffraction patterns. To view pictures of the original DNA samples used by Franklin and Gosling, please see our Photo 51 Flickr gallery.

Alongside her skills as an experimental scientist, Gosling also pays tribute to Franklin's personal integrity. In recent years, much has been made of the obstacles faced by Franklin as a female in a male-dominated culture, and how sexism contributed to the friction between her and fellow DNA researchers Maurice Wilkins and Jim Watson. And yet she was nothing but magnanimous when beaten by Watson in the race to the double helix.

At the same time, Franklin was not intimidated by her male competitors, as exemplified by her reaction to Watson and Crick's initial model of DNA's structure, which was not only incorrect but contained a number of rudimentary errors. As retold beautifully by Gosling on our Biome podcast, Franklin verbally tore the model apart 'with relish'. Watson – perhaps for the only time in his life – was rendered speechless. But Franklin, as Gosling remembers it, 'was on the top of her form.'