The woman behind the structure of DNA

After centuries of discoveries and milestones produced in the scientific field, it is not surprising that in all this time names have been recorded that have gone down in history for their contributions in a world in constant development and progress. Such is the case of Isaac Newton and his law of gravity, or that of Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity, as well as that of Stephen Hawking, who changed the way we see the universe. Definitely, there are numerous proper names that accompany science as a whole. But how many of all of them refer to women?

Research over the years by chemists, biologists, physicists, mathematicians and a long list of specialists (in some cases in the shadows) have laid the foundations of scientific foundations as we know them today, and a clear example of it is Rosalind Franklin, British chemist and crystallographer whose work in the mid-twentieth century turned out to be fundamental in understanding the molecular structures of DNA.

The fruit of their labor can be seen today at King’s College London, where The original of one of the best-known photographs of science is kept: the so-called Photograph 51, which was essential to discover the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the “molecule of life”.

On the website, the CSIC (Higher Council for Scientific Research) tells the story of different scientists, including Rosalind Franklin herself, because she dedicated a large part of her life to this company and her work was not really recognized until later. They themselves relate how in the middle of the Second World War, in 1942 to be exact, this young woman born in 1920 in London obtained an assistant position in a British organization dedicated to research on coal and its derivatives, some studies that by the way “served for the manufacture of gas masks”.

A few years later, when the Second World War had already come to an end, he obtained the PhD in Chemistry-Physics and in 1951 he returned to London to work at King’s College. That was precisely where he started it all.

Taking advantage of her knowledge of the X-ray diffraction technique, this young scientist dedicated a long time (each image took about 100 hours to take) to this work, changed the method and obtained photographs, together with her doctoral student Raymond Gosling, “with a sharpness that no one had achieved before.”

This is how Eduardo Angulo, PhD in Biology and retired professor of cell biology at the UPV/EHU, describes it in the blog Mujeres con ciencia, a page that houses ephemeris, interviews and biographies of women scientists of yesterday and today without whose contributions the world would have been very different. In his story about Franklin, he tells how Maurice Wilkins, a classmate at King’s College of this scientist although apparently not a close friend of hers, in the following months was teaching fellow researchers James Watson and Francis Crick (also interested in the structure of DNA and who worked at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge) DNA images taken by Franklin and Gosling, “rarely with her permission and most of the time without her knowledge.”

Nobel Prize

It was in 1953 that these researchers witnessed the famous Photograph 51 that would change everything, and that same year they published a study in the journal Nature that nine years later would earn them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine together with Maurice Wilkins “for their discoveries about the molecular structure of nucleic acids and their importance for the transfer of information in living matter”.

dna PS

But what happened to Franklin? She had died in April 1958, and since Nobel Prize awards are not awarded posthumously and only a maximum of three can be awarded in the same category and year, she received no such recognition. Before that, she had already left King’s College for several years to move to Birbeck College, also in London, where she worked and made great discoveries until her death from ovarian cancer.

However, his memory lives on and even Nicole Kidman brought his legacy to life in the stage performance of photograph 51, where she played the scientist. The memory of her is also kept alive in the State with several cities that have streets named after her, such as Getafe, Málaga or Terrassa, as well as an avenue in Albacete.

Because although at that time her colleagues did not value her contribution, society has kept alive the essence of this young scientist who carried out an essential contribution to the world as we know it today.

Did you know?

There is a rover by the name of Rosalind Franklin. This is the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin, a 310 kg rover that will cross the landscape of Mars on six wheels. As explained by ESA, it will be the first off-road capable of drilling 2 meters, where ancient biomarkers can still be preserved from the harsh radiation environment on the surface. The launch of this mission of the European Space Agency was going to take place together with Roscosmos (the Russian agency), but the war in Ukraine has broken these relations and this fact has forced the launch of the mission to be paralyzed.

In addition to this rover and the streets at the state and world level that bear his name, there is also a building with his name on the Leioa campus of the University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea (UPV/EHU). Likewise, in 2003 the Royal Society of the United Kingdom made the decision to establish the Rosalind Franklin Awards with the aim of helping women in the field of science.

Rover image. THAT

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The woman behind the structure of DNA