15 Facts About Rosalind Franklin

Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Today would have been the 100th birthday of English chemist Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant and dedicated scientist best known for the honor denied her: the 1962 Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Here are 15 facts about the noted scientist.

1. Rosalind Franklin discovered her calling early, but her father didn't believe that women should be college-educated. 

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London in 1920. She was one of five children born into a wealthy Jewish family. She decided she wanted to become a scientist at 15, and passed the admissions exam for Cambridge University. However, her father, Ellis, a merchant banker, objected to women going to college and refused to pay her tuition. Her aunt and mother finally managed to change his mind, and she enrolled at Cambridge's all-female Newnham College in 1938.

2. Rosalind Franklin attended college with another woman who didn't get full credit for her work.

Bletchley Park cryptanalyst Joan Clarke was a few years older than Franklin, but they were both at Newnham in the late 1930s. Clarke would go on to be recruited for the war effort, cracking the German Enigma codes. The full scope of Clarke's work is still unknown, due to government secrecy.

3. Rosalind Franklin's university refused to acknowledge her scholastic achievements for years.

Azeira, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite Newnham College having been at Cambridge since 1871, the university refused to accept women as full members until 1948, seven years after Franklin earned the title of a degree in chemistry. Oxford University started granting women's degrees in 1920.

4. Rosalind Franklin's research on coal aided the aerospace industry.

After graduation, Franklin got a job at the British Coal Utilization Research Association (BCURA), where she researched coal and charcoal, and how it could be used for more than fuel. Her research formed the basis for her 1945 doctoral dissertation; it and several of her later papers on the micro-structures of carbon fibers played a role in the eventual use of carbon composites in air- and spacecraft construction.

5. Rosalind Franklin's male colleagues were hostile and undermined her research.

Franklin had a direct nature and was unwilling to be traditionally feminine. One reason she left Cambridge to work on coal was that her doctoral supervisor did not like her and believed women would always be less than men. When she was hired in 1951 at King's College, London, to work on DNA, she clashed with researcher Maurice Wilkins, who had thought she was his assistant, not his equal. Meanwhile, Franklin was under the impression that she'd be completely independent. Their relationship got worse and worse the longer they worked together. Wilkins went so far as to share Franklin's research without telling her with James Watson and Francis Crick—even though they were technically his competitors, funded by Cambridge University. Watson was particularly nasty about Franklin in his 1968 book, The Double Helix, criticizing her appearance and saying she had to be “put in her place.”

6. How events unfolded in the discovery of DNA's structure is still debated today.

Altayb, iStock

Many books have been written hashing over events, either criticizing Watson and Crick, saying they stole Franklin's research, or defending the duo, saying her research helped them but that Franklin would not ultimately have reached their conclusions on her own. Though Franklin and Watson never became friendly, Crick and his wife welcomed Franklin into their home while she was being treated for ovarian cancer.

7. Rosalind Franklin's work may have led to her untimely death.

Franklin died of cancer in 1958. She was 37. Though genetics likely played a part in her illness, her work with crystal x-ray diffraction, which involved constant exposure to radiation, did not help. She is not the first woman in science to risk her health for her research. Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia, which has been tied to radiation exposure. Many of Curie's personal belongings, including her cookbooks, are too radioactive to handle even today.

8. Had Rosalind Franklin lived longer, she may have qualified for more than one Nobel Prize.

Maurice Wilkins (on left), Francis Crick (third from left), and James Watson (fifth from left) accept their Nobel Prize in 1962.
Maurice Wilkins (on left), Francis Crick (third from left), and James Watson (fifth from left) accept their Nobel Prize in 1962. / Keystone, Getty Images

The first, of course, would have been awarded with Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, had they been made to share credit with her. (Pierre Curie had to ask the Nobel Committee to add his wife to the nomination in 1903.) As for the second, chemist Aaron Klug won the prize in 1982, carrying on work he and Franklin had started on viruses in 1953, after she left King's College. Because of the rules at the time of her death about awarding prizes posthumously (and in 1974 all posthumous awards were eliminated, the sole exception being in 2011), Franklin has none.

9. Despite being denied the Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin's contributions have been acknowledged and honored by many academics.

In 2004, the Chicago Medical School renamed itself the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. She has also had a number of academic programs, auditoriums, and labs named for her. In 2013, Newnham College principal Dame Carol Black helped install a plaque commemorating Franklin at the Eagle Pub in Cambridge. Crick and Watson, who already had a plaque in the pub, drank there often while working on the DNA project, and allegedly boasted about discovering “the secret of life” to other patrons.

10. Rosalind Franklin is the subject of several biographies.

The first, 1975's Rosalind Franklin and DNA, was written by her friend Anne Sayre, largely as a reaction to Watson's The Double Helix. In 2002, Brenda Maddox published Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.

11. There's an object in space named after Rosalind Franklin.

In 1997, amateur Australian astronomer John Broughton discovered an asteroid, which he named 9241 Rosfranklin.

12. At least one history rap battle is about Rosalind Franklin.

It was produced by seventh graders in Oakland, California (with some help from teacher Tom McFadden). And it is delightful.

13. Rosalind Franklin has been immortalized on the small screen as well as on the big stage.

In 1987, BBC's Horizon series aired The Race for the Double Helix, starring Juliet Stevenson as Franklin. Jeff Goldblum played Watson. In 2011, playwright Anna Ziegler premiered a one-act about Franklin called Photograph 51. It opened on the West End in 2015, starring Nicole Kidman as Franklin.

14. The 2015 run of Photograph 51 reignited the old controversy.

While Kidman got much praise from critics for her turn as Franklin in Photograph 51, Maurice Wilkins' friends and former colleagues have taken exception to a scene where Wilkins takes a photograph—the titular Photo 51, which showed evidence of DNA's structure—from Franklin's desk when she isn't there, saying he would never have done something so dishonorable.

15. The play Photograph 51 may be adapted to the big screen.

In 2016, the West End production's director, Michael Grandage, told The Hollywood Reporter that he hopes to turn the play into a film—with Kidman reprising the role.

This story has been updated for 2020.