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Famous chemists: Rosalind Franklin

Famous chemists: Rosalind Franklin

Who was she?

After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Franklin conducted important experimental work for the coal industry. She then went to Paris and became an expert in x-ray crystallography. Her work was one of the first steps in developing carbon-fibre technology.

She returned to London and started working on the structure of DNA. Franklin discovered that DNA could crystallize into two different forms, an A form and a B form. She then succeeded in discovering an ingenious method to separate the two forms providing the first DNA crystals pure enough to show interpretable patterns. She gave details about the shape and size of the famous DNA double helix but she could not find, from her data, how the bases paired on the inside of the helix. That discovery remained for Watson and Crick to make.

Her legacy

Rosalind Franklin was friendly with both James Watson and Francis Crick, the pair credited with solving the DNA puzzle. She spoke to them regularly before she died of cancer in April of 1958, at the age of 37. She died with a reputation around the world for her contributions to knowledge about the structure of carbon compounds and of viruses.

After her death, Watson and Crick made it clear in public lectures that they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. However, because the Nobel Prize is not awarded after death, Rosalind Franklin could not be given credit for her essential role in the discovery of the physical basis of genetic heredity.