Rosalind Franklin’s crucial but under-acknowledged contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA has led the X-ray crystallographer to be hailed an “unsung hero.” But there are many more feats that make Franklin deserving of this label and a role model in the eyes of the scientific community. One, in particular, is her unbridled dedication to research.

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X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, pictured in 1956.
Image credit: National Library of Medicine

Franklin died from ovarian cancer in 1958, aged just 37. Though her life was short-lived, her contributions to science were not.

Her most famous work is that which aided the discovery of the double helix. This included “photo 51” – the famous X-ray image of a crystallized DNA fiber that provided vital clues to the helical structure of DNA.

However, it was researchers James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 – 4 years after Franklin’s death – for uncovering the structure of DNA, having used Franklin’s work to help them reach their findings.

Since her death, Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of the double helix has gained widespread recognition.

“Sympathy and feminism have combined to give us her familiar image as a downtrodden woman scientist, brilliant but neglected, a heroine to inspire a new generation of scientific girls,” Franklin’s sister Jenifer Glynn wrote in 2012.

Is this perception of a “downtrodden” female scientist accurate? Franklin may well have been treated unfavorably by some of her peers, but she did not let this interfere with her research – a quality that has made her an inspiration to male and female scientists alike.

In the third of a series of articles highlighting female role models in medicine, we look at the challenges Franklin faced throughout her life and career.

How did she navigate the difficulties she encountered in the workplace? What lessons have scientists learned from Franklin’s experiences?

In 1950, Franklin was offered a 3-year research scholarship at Prof. John T. Randall’s Biophysics Unit at King’s College London, where she used X-ray crystallography to investigate the structure of DNA. It is here that she met Maurice Wilkins, who was the assistant laboratory chief.

The relationship between Wilkins and Franklin was frosty at best, initiated by a confusion of hierarchy in the workplace.

“She had been told by Professor John T. Randall […] that the DNA work was to be her responsibility, while Maurice Wilkins, who had been working on DNA, thought she had been brought in as his assistant,” Glynn explained in an article published in The Lancet.

“It was not a good start, made worse by the apparent failure of Rosalind and Maurice to co-operate or to understand each other’s point of view,” she added.

According to Barbara Maddox, author of the biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, the relationship between Franklin and Wilkins represents “one of the great personal quarrels in the history of science.” As a result, each scientist worked in isolation.

Scientists know that rivalries among colleagues are not uncommon. But personal differences can get in the way of collaboration and success, as Franklin’s story shows.

Franklin became very unhappy at King’s, yet she remained committed to her research.

With the help of graduate student Raymond Gosling, Franklin managed to capture two high-resolution images of DNA – one of which was the famous photo 51, described by X-ray crystallographer J.D. Bernal as “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”

Franklin’s data, which Wilkins retrieved and presented to Watson without her knowledge, provided the missing piece in the puzzle for Watson and Crick. With this knowledge, they were able to publish their model of the DNA double helix.

“She never knew how much they relied on her work. If she had, there would have been an almighty explosion,” said Glynn. “She had a very strong sense of justice and if she’d known that they’d taken [her data] without her knowledge she would have been furious.”

It is this controversial incident that has led Franklin to be perceived as a “downtrodden” female scientist. However, it was her continued perseverance in the face of professional and personal challenges that has earned her the label of a female icon.

After spending 2 unhappy years at King’s College, Franklin moved to Birkbeck College in London to study viruses.

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Franklin pictured in a laboratory at Birkbeck College in 1955.
Image credit: National Library of Medicine

“I think many people were taken aback by her personality and authority, and the entire situation that transpired between Franklin and Wilkins would be enough to drive many people out of science altogether,” Ellen Elliott, Ph.D., postdoctoral associate at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, CT, who penned a blog on Franklin’s career, told Medical News Today.

“But she loved science so much, that in the end she just decided to leave King’s College and pursue another area of research,” she added.

Here, she worked underneath X-ray crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, who recommended that Franklin investigate tobacco mosaic virus (TMV).

At the time, knowledge of molecular biology was still in its infancy, as Prof. Angela Creager, from Princeton University in New Jersey, explained in her 2009 paper titled “After the Double Helix.” Franklin herself is quoted as explaining: “[Our] work is concerned with what is probably the most fundamental of all questions concerning the mechanism of living processes, namely the relationship between protein and nucleic acid in the living cell.”

During her time at Birkbeck, she built up an impressive network of collaborators, which included her earlier foes of Watson and Crick. “Franklin navigated the fractious community of TMV biochemists with remarkable facility,” explains Prof. Creager.

By 1955, Franklin had uncovered information about the length of TMV particles, and shortly after, she and her colleagues had unraveled the structure of the virus.

But in 1956, tragedy hit. During a work-related visit to the United States, Franklin began experiencing swelling and pain in her abdomen. She was soon diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Over the following year, Franklin underwent numerous surgeries and treatments for her cancer. She continued her work throughout, even applying for a 3-year research grant so that her team could investigate the structure of the polio virus – the first animal virus to be crystallized.

After her passing, two members of her research team – John Finch and Aaron Klug – published a paper detailing the structure of the polio virus, which they dedicated to Franklin.

Even in the face of death, Franklin put science first. As Bernal said in an obituary for Franklin, she was “the perfect example of a single-minded devotion to research.”

What have scientists today learned from her story?

On the surface, Franklin can be perceived “as a symbol of a woman struggling and unacknowledged in a man’s world,” as Glynn puts it.

Of course, Franklin was a scientist during a time when sexism was at its peak. She often spoke to friends and family about her frustration at being excluded from the senior common room at King’s College, which was out of bounds for all women.

However, Franklin herself said that she never felt that gender bias held back her research. “Her much publicized difficulties [at King’s] were partly the result of a personality clash that had little to do with the fact that she was a woman,” notes Glynn.

For many researchers, Franklin is an inspiration not solely because she was a successful female scientist in a male-dominated field, but because of the challenges she overcame to reach her goals – particularly when it came to workplace politics.

Franklin was honest with her criticisms, and didn’t allow personal issues to blur her science. For instance, Jim Watson and Franklin did not get along well during her time at King’s College, but they actually developed a close relationship later on when they were both studying the structure and function of viruses.

I think it takes a really strong person to accept and move beyond past disagreements, and this further highlights how incredibly important science was to Franklin.”

Ellen Elliott, Ph.D.

In an age where research networks are increasingly becoming the norm and a requirement for many scientific funding bodies, the ability to work collaboratively is a key feature of success for many of today’s scientists.

Franklin’s career is a good example of how personal differences can get in the way of this, as her relationship with Wilkins showed. However, she clearly thrived in the supportive department at Birkbeck, where she collaborated successfully with many of her colleagues both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

As Creager explains: “[Franklin] showed herself remarkably adept in maneuvering within the interdisciplinary and international arena and at managing relations with rivals, collaborators, and allies (often the same people in different roles over time) in order to obtain the materials and support she needed to succeed.”

This collaborative skill, combined with her tenacity and passion for science, has led her to be considered one of the most influential female scientists in history.

“Franklin’s story […] inspires me in many ways. From a purely scientific perspective, I am reminded that scientific research requires time, patience, and resilience,” Elliott told MNT. “She worked long hours in the lab and repeated these intricate X-ray crystallography experiments multiple times before she was convinced that her data supported a particular conclusion.”

Franklin is such a great example of how devotion to science can be a motivating factor in the face of [a] challenging work environment. […] I think what she did was incredibly important in establishing that women are capable and invested in scientific research, and that women should be given more opportunities to do their own work.”

Ellen Elliott, Ph.D.