Rosalind Franklin portrait in oil on silk by Anya Vero

DNA is our most fundamental understanding of ourselves – this is what we are. The person behind the first ever x-ray photograph of DNA and its structure is Rosalind Franklin. She was an English chemical scientist, specialising in X-ray crystallography and her work is paramount to our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.

DNA was first discovered in the late 1860s by Swiss chemist Friedrich Miescher. But its molecular structure was not known and this is why Franklin’s work was so important. Understanding the structure of DNA allowed for a far more effective way to investigate disease pathways, analyse a person’s genetic susceptibility to certain diseases, identify pathogens, diagnose genetic disorders, and come up with new medicines. (source)

Rosalind Franklin portrait close up tot he eyein oil on silk by Anya Vero


Rosalind Franklin was born in London, UK, in 1920. She studied in private schools, learning chemistry and physics, which was uncommonly taught to girls. Her father, whose dream of becoming a scientist was cut short by the war, encouraged his daughter to pursue science. She went on to do a degree in chemistry at Cambridge University in 1938. After graduating she received a graduate scholarship but after a year she left to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, as she was treated differently by colleagues in the department because she was a woman. There she researched and published a significant work on coal structure which got her a PhD from Cambridge in 1945.


After the war she moved to Paris to join Marcel Mathieu and work as a “chercheur” in the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat. There she did analyses of carbons using X-ray crystallography. This specialisation in X-raw crystallography led her to receive an offer from King’s College, to improve the X-ray crystallography unit at the university. She was to work alongside Maurice Wilkins who first thought that she was hired to be his assistant rather than a colleague. She pursued the improvement of crystallography for the study of DNA structure. In May 1952 Franklin took the famous high resolution Photograph 51 which for the first time ever revealed the molecular structure of DNA. This was a breakthrough of enormous proportions. (source)

Rosalind Franklin portrait back of the painting in oil on silk by Anya Vero

“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”

Rosalind Franklin


About DNA structure’s discovery:

She unveiled her findings at a now famous talk at King’s College, London, which was attended by James Watson. Subsequently, writing in The Double Helix, Watson claimed that he hadn’t been paying close enough attention during the lecture to be able properly to discuss Franklin’s findings with his associate, Francis Crick, with whom he was working at the Cavendish Laboratory on the structure of DNA. Her X-ray data were instead shared with them independently by Maurice Wilkins who never, along with Crick and Watson, collaborated directly with Franklin. But the data did prove their theories around a 3D structure for DNA. Franklin expounded her research in the same 1953 edition of Nature that featured the respective papers of Wilkins and the Crick-Watson duo.

After leaving King’s and all the drama there in 1953 to work at the Birkbeck lab, she studied the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) and published a number of papers. She worked on nucleic acid, RNA, a molecule equally central to life as DNA. She managed to keep working through a long battle with cancer. Franklin lost that battle and died in 1958.

Watson, Crick and Wilkins were all awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, but not Franklin, although the rule of not awarding the Nobel Prize posthumously was not in effect until 1973, which means she should have been awarded the prize as she enabled others to progress in this field as well.  Additionally, Aaron Klug, who was Franklin’s colleague and main beneficiary, was awarded Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for “for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes.” (source). This is what Franklin was working on and introduced Klug to, so it is highly likely that had she been alive, they both would have been awarded the prize.

Photo 51 DNA structure by Rosalind Franklin