- British x-ray crystallographer whose diffraction images, made by directing x-rays at DNA, provided crucial information that led to the discovery of its structure as a double helix by Francis Crick and James D. Watson.
Biography: James D. Watson and Francis Crick's famous double helix model of the structure of DNA is rightly considered one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made. While Watson and Crick became famous the world over, later sharing the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, the contributions of Rosalind Franklin are less well-known, even though her work was crucial to their discovery. Franklin's x-ray photograph depicting the double-helix shape of DNA gave Watson and Crick the essential experimental evidence they needed to determine DNA's structure. Born in London in 1920 to a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family, Franklin attended the University of Cambridge, where she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry. It was there that she learned x-ray crystallography, a process used to determine the structure of molecules by bombarding them with x-rays and analyzing the resultant diffraction patterns. Franklin later accepted a post at King's College London in 1951 to study DNA, thus entering the race to discover the molecule's structure. Without her knowledge, a close colleague at King's, Maurice Wilkins, showed her unpublished research to Watson and Crick, who were then able to establish DNA's configuration and soon after published their findings in the journal Nature. When Franklin saw the model produced by Watson and Crick, she accepted it immediately, as it fit with her experimental data. Franklin left King's in 1953 and continued a distinguished career, studying the structure of viruses. She died of ovarian cancer at 37, never knowing how her own work had contributed to their important discovery.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.