It was during a trip to America to look for a research grant from the NIH, in the summer of 1956, when Franklin began to experience sharp abdominal pain and swelling. On her return to London in September of that year, her doctor suspected she had ovarian cancer. It was confirmed with a surgery. The next month she had another surgery. She finally returned to work in the first month of the new year. With her illness, the placement of her lab went from inconvenient to problematic and exhausting. Throughout 1957, Franklin underwent many treatments and surgeries, going back to work as much as she could.
At Birkbeck, Franklin and her team produced a good number of journal articles, including "The Helical Arrangement of the Protein Sub-Units in Tobacco Mosaic Virus", "The Structure of Turnip Yellow Mosaic Virus: X-Ray Diffraction Studies", "On the Structure of Some Ribonucleoprotein Particles", "Order-Disorder Transitions in Structures Containing Helical Molecules", "The Structure of Viruses as Determined by X-Ray Diffraction", and "The Crystal Structure of Tipula Iridescent Virus as Determined by Bragg Reflection of Visible Light". Franklin made numerous contributions to the study of plant viruses while at Birkbeck, and even began planning a project studying the polio virus.
Throughout her life, Rosalind Franklin made so many contributions to science. She started with using x-ray diffraction for coal research and then turned that technique to study biological molecules. She was instrumental in discovering the structure of DNA, and made great contributions to studying plant viruses. Her work with coal earlier on was groundbreaking.
Franklin died before she was 38. I wonder what she would have done if she lived a longer life. I wonder how she would have wanted to be remembered. Some people see her as a victim -- a martyr -- of sexism in science. Others see her as an amazing scientist who accomplished so much in her short life. Others don't remember her at all. I wonder what she would have wanted. How would she have wanted her story told? How would she have wanted the world to remember what she did?
In 1951, Rosalind Franklin went back to London to work in J. T. Randall's biophysics program at King's College. It was very different from Paris. "London in the 1950s seemed to Rosalind to be sunk in pessimism, while Paris, recovering from the horrors of occupation, was forward-looking and full of optimism," writes Jennifer Glynn in her memoir My Sister Rosalind Franklin. The work environment as well was in high contrast to her last job. Sexism was built deeply into the work environment. It was very unwelcoming in contrast to Mering's lab in Paris, as Glynn describes: "There were certainly a surprising number of women scientists at King's, but they were not allowed in the men's common room, where there was lunch and coffee and contact with colleagues--an insulting situation, even if not unusual in England at the time; it hit Rosalind particularly badly after the freedom and friendliness of the lab in the Quai Henri IV. And the immediate hostility between Rosalind and her colleague Maurice Wilkins has become notorious." This was King's College in the 1950s. This was when Franklin stepped into the famous and messy race for the structure of DNA.
Franklin didn't intend to work on DNA when she came to King's College. "Franklin's fellowship proposal called for her to work on x-ray diffraction studies of proteins in solution. However, there was a shift in research priorities after Maurice Wilkins, the assistant director of Randall's lab, began working with an unusually pure sample of DNA obtained from Rudolf Signer. Excited about the possibilities, Wilkins suggested to Randall that Franklin's expertise might be better applied to this promising DNA research. Randall agreed; he wrote to Franklin in November 1950, explaining the change of plan, and stated that she and graduate student Raymond Gosling would be the only staff doing crystallographic studies of DNA. Randall did not mention Wilkins' serious interest in DNA, nor did he tell Wilkins the details of the letter. These omissions soon generated misunderstandings between Wilkins and Franklin--Franklin assumed that the x-ray diffraction studies of DNA would be her project alone; Wilkins assumed that she was joining the loosely organized research team ('Randall's Circus') at the biophysics lab, as the expert on crystallography." (The Rosalind Franklin Papers, NIH) These misconceptions heightened tensions between Franklin and Wilkins, which weren't helped by a personality conflict between the two.
I suspect that in the beginning Maurice hoped that Rosy would calm down. Yet mere inspection suggested that she would not easily bend. By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. But this was not the case. Her dedicated, austere life could not be thus explained--she was the daughter of a solidly comfortable, erudite banking family.
There's no question why Franklin was unhappy there.
It was in this environment that Franklin worked studying DNA with x-ray crystallography. It was here that Franklin and Gosling produced the famous Photograph 51 of DNA.
Photo 51, May 1952, taken by
Raymond Gosling under
Wilkins showed this photo to Crick and Watson, without Franklin's knowledge or permission. Crick and Watson used this photo as crucial proof in their designs for a model of DNA. They never gave her credit for it in their journal article. The sad thing is is that Franklin never knew they took her work. We'll never get to know what she would have felt about it.
Franklin died before Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel prize in medicine. Had she been alive, she might have gotten the credit she deserved.
Loren Sinclair is a high school student interested in chemistry, art, computer science, theater, and everything else! They are writing this blog to tell Rosalind Franklin's often untold tale, from her life story to the science behind her work.