How Did Rosalind Franklin Contribute to DNA Research?

x-ray crystallographer instrumental to double helix discovery

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Rosalind Franklin is one of many scientists credited with early DNA research. Her work in X-ray photography was key to unlocking the structure of DNA. Nevertheless, her contributions are often overlooked.

Rosalind Franklin with microscope in 1955.
Rosalind Franklin used X-ray photography to determine that the structure of DNA had a helical conformation, which later led scientists to discover the double-helix structure of DNA. Photo by MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology/ Modified/ Wikimedia Commons/ (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Dr. Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 in London. At the age of 25, she had earned a PhD from Cambridge and soon became an X-ray crystallographer, at which she excelled. She joined King’s College London in 1951 as a research associate and identified some key properties of DNA while working with several other researchers. However, her exact role in the DNA discovery process has been contested since the 1950s.

On April 25, 1953, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in the academic journal Nature proposing the structure of DNA as the double helix we now take for granted. Seventy years later to the day, two scholars published another article in Nature arguing for Franklin’s recognition as an equal contributor to the research, which had earned Watson, Crick, and their colleague Maurice Wilkins the Nobel Prize in 1962.

So, when did Franklin join the research team that identified the double helix? In his video series Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA, science writer Sam Kean untangles the complicated history of the team’s DNA research.

Who Discovered the Structure of DNA?

The efforts of James Watson and Francis Crick to map the structure of DNA began when Crick attended a lecture of Rosalind Franklin, where she presented her preliminary work firing X-rays at DNA to try to determine the shape of DNA. Returning to Cambridge, Crick proposed to Watson that they should try to beat any other scientists to the punch and discover the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, their theoretical triple helix structure relied on them making up a lot of things with little to no scientific backing.

“It was time to get some feedback,” Kean said. “Crick called up Maurice Wilkins, who was researching DNA at King’s College in London. Wilkins agreed to come by Cambridge to see the model, accompanied by Rosalind Franklin. Watson and Crick didn’t realize, however, that things were tense within the London group. In fact, Wilkins and Franklin more or less hated each other.”

A year earlier, Wilkins had been given a sample of isolated, pure bovine DNA. His attempts at taking X-ray pictures of it proved his shortcomings as a photographer. He asked his boss for an X-ray photographer. The boss found Franklin, who had been promised to direct her own research, but Wilkins believed she was there to serve as his assistant. Tensions grew rapidly and the two were barely on speaking terms when they listened to the presentation of Watson and Crick.

“They started their presentation that morning with enthusiasm, but things quickly unraveled,” Kean said. “As theorists, not experimentalists, the duo had very little practical knowledge about DNA—the kind of knowledge that Franklin did have. And she proceeded to tear their model to shreds.”

A year later, one of Franklin’s best X-ray photographs—shown to Watson and Crick by Wilkins without Franklin’s permission—became key to Watson’s and Crick’s helix research. In 1953, their famous paper was published, only briefly acknowledging Wilkins and Franklin. Watson and Crick received most of the credit, while all three men, but not Franklin, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work.

Unlocking the Hidden History of DNA is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily