Rosalind Franklin should have won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. She died at the very young age of 37 of ovarian cancer in 1958, probably from exposure to the radiation that helped her make this incredible discovery. In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins jointly won her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Nobel Committee awards Nobel Prizes only to people who are still alive.
This brilliant woman made breakthrough studies in DNA, the tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus in spite of suffering from discrimination against women throughout her research career. She was a British biophysicist who used X-ray crystallography to take the first pictures of DNA. She was the first person to determine the structure of DNA, the genetic material that passes cell traits from parents to their children. However, she received no credit from the Nobel Prize Committee for her incredible discovery.
The Double Helix
Franklin was a researcher on the faculty of King’s College in London and worked in the same lab with Maurice Wilkins. In late January 1953, without her consent, Wilkins showed her photographs of DNA to Watson and the three of them went on to eventually win a Nobel Prize that should have been shared with her, but was not. Her pictures were the first to measure DNA’s diameter, length, and angles.
In February, 1953, Max Perutz, head of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit housed in Cambridge, where Crick was a research student, showed Franklin’s MRC report containing her impression of the structure of DNA to Crick. Franklin did not know that Watson and Crick were about to publish their groundbreaking paper. They beat her to publication because they had read her unpublished paper before they published their own on April, 25, 1953.
Linus Pauling and Rosalind Franklin Could Have Won that Nobel Prize Together
Double Nobel-prize winner Linus Pauling was also victimized. In May 1952 he applied for a passport to visit England but was refused because of the overzealous House Un-American Activities Committee that accused him, unreasonably, of being a communist. Pauling was not a communist; he wanted peace. The Nobel Prize Committee did not make that mistake. They gave him the Nobel Prize for peace in 1962, the same year Watson, Crick and Wilkins won their Nobel Prize for “discovering” the structure of DNA. If Pauling had been at that conference, he would certainly have met Franklin and they would have shared the Nobel Prize, instead of Watson, Crick and Wilkins. In 1952, Wilkins had denied Pauling’s request to view Franklin’s pictures of DNA.
In January 1953 Linus Pauling sent his son Peter, who was studying at Cambridge, a draft copy of his paper on DNA. Watson read Pauling’s paper on the structure of DNA and recognized a basic error in structural chemistry. Watson used most of Pauling’s work and corrected this misconception to help him demonstrate the correct structure of DNA.
Watson and Crick published a paper in the same April 25, 1953 issue of Nature that also had separately published papers by Wilkins and Franklin, who were unwilling to work together even though they were at the same laboratory. Obviously, Watson and Crick had seen Franklin’s pictures of DNA and chose not to give her credit for them.
Franklin was born in London into a rich and influential Jewish family. Her father was Ellis Arthur Franklin, a London banker. Her father’s uncle was Viscount Herbert Samuel, the British Home Secretary in 1916. Her aunt, Helen Caroline Franklin, was married to Norman de Mattos Bentwich, who was the Attorney General in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Franklin was always the best student in her class. She went to Newnham College for Women at Cambridge University and received her bachelor’s degree in 1938 in chemistry. Cambridge did not award PhDs to women at that time, but did grant her a PhD seven years later, in 1945. Her thesis was on the structure of coal. She used crystallography to determine the structure of coal and later used this technique to determine the structure of DNA.
She then went to Paris to work with Jacques Mering, the married director of the state-run Laboratoire Central, and worked extensively with X-ray crystallography. Mering was the unrequited love of her life. She wasted years yearning for him and never married.
She returned to England to King’s College in London and took pictures that defined the structure of DNA, but she was miserable there. Discrimination was so bad that women were not allowed to eat in the same dining room as men. She spent the rest of her life devoted to her scientific career. She wore very plain clothes, wore no makeup and didn’t have a real love relationship again until she was dying of ovarian cancer. In August 1955, she met Donald Caspar who had just received his PhD and received a fellowship to work in her lab. He was not married and appears to have fallen in love with her.
In mid-1956 on a work-related trip to the United States, she developed belly pain. In September 1956 surgeons found two large ovarian cancers in her abdomen. Even today, this is usually a fatal disease. She suffered three operations and extensive chemotherapy and did gain a 10-month remission. She never really recovered fully, but she continued to work productively. While very sick from her ovarian cancers, she still was able to publish seven important papers in 1956 and six more in 1957. She did credible research on the polio virus.
On March, 30, she was admitted to the hospital again and died on April 16, 1958, in London of bronchopneumonia with widespread ovarian cancer. She had worked day and night with the radiation from X ray crystallography. She never wore lead aprons. After her lonely and under- appreciated scientific career, this magnificent woman died never winning a Nobel Prize.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin
25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958