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Rosalind Franklin - superhero with x-ray eyes

Published: Jul 24, 2020 3 min read

STEM learning

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, a STEM role model before STEM was even spoken about, continues to inspire a new generation of young people, having been immortalised on a 50p coin.

Photo of Rosalind Franklin next to photo of 50p coin commemorating her

When we think of Notting Hill, West London, most would name the famous carnival, or the Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts romcom. Few would mention the birthplace of one of the most influential chemists and biophysicists of the 20th century.

The release of the latest 50p coin, as part of The UK's Innovation in Science 50p series firmly places Rosalind Elsie Franklin at the forefront of influential women scientists of our time.

Born in a time of change

Rosalind was born in the Roaring 20s, a time of exuberant, freewheeling popular culture that brought dramatic social and political change, flare and freedom to women, and advances in science and technology.

It was clearly fitting that Rosalind, an English chemist and outstanding X-ray crystallographer, was born in that period, as her revolutionary work became central to the understanding of the molecular structures of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA).

A Cambridge graduate, from Newnham College, Rosalind, in a decidedly male-dominated scientific world, spent time in Paris, becoming a researcher with Jacques Mering. Mering was an X-ray crystallographer at an institute in Paris, where Rosalind’s interest and applied expertise in X-ray diffraction was to define her notoriety in the world of applied chemistry and biophysics.

Focus on DNA

The scene was set, as she returned to the UK, taking up a Fellowship at Kings College, London at the Medical Research Council’s Biophysics Unit, under the direction of John Randall, who re-directed her work on DNA ‘fibres’.

In a defining lecture at Kings College Rosalind wrote “The results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing 2, 3 or 4 co-axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit, and having phosphate groups near the outside.”

Our understanding of DNA was forming and the significance of Rosalind’s work, although not immediately recognised at the time, is now firmly placed in history as a momentous moment in science.

Rosalind did other pioneering work with X-ray crystallography to study the structure of the polio and the tobacco mosaic (RNA) viruses, and also shed valuable light on the porosity of coal and the structure of graphite. It is, however, her findings on the structure of DNA that assisted Crick and Watson to build a deeper understanding of it. 

Posthumous recognition

The sadness of much of her incredible work was that, although her studies on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her telling contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognised posthumously.

Controversially, she was never nominated for a Nobel Prize, but most chemists, biochemists and biophysicists continue to argue that Rosalind Franklin should have received this international recognition and that her work will go down in history as one of the most crucial elements in the discovery of DNA’s structure.

Her recognition, however, is reflected in many other tributes, from an English Heritage blue plaque in London and the naming of a Mars rover to the commemorative 50p and of course Franklin House at the National STEM Centre.

Dr Ajay Sharman is STEM Learning Regional Lead, South East (and proud PhD Biochemist)

See also

Photo of 50p coin copyright The Royal Mint

Photo of Rosalind Franklin By Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic-art/217394/99712/Rosalind-Fran..., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24959067