|Papers of Rosalind Franklin Added to the
National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science Website
The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes
of Health, announces the release of an extensive selection from
the papers of Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and crystallographer
who did ground breaking work in shedding light on the structure
of DNA, on its Profiles in Science website at http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov.
The online exhibit features correspondence, published articles,
photos, lab notebooks, and reports from Franklin’s files. An introductory
exhibit section places Franklin’s achievements in historical context.
The Library, in collaboration with the Churchill Archives Center
at Cambridge University, has digitized and made available over
the World Wide Web a selection of the Franklin Papers for use by
educators, researchers, and the public. This brings to 21 the number
of notable researchers and public health officials whose personal
and professional records are featured on the site.
Franklin began her scientific career analyzing the structure of
coal and carbon during World War II, and became an internationally
recognized expert in that field. For five years before her premature
death, she did path-breaking research that elucidated the structure
of plant viruses. Yet chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin
(1920–1958) is now best known for the research that occupied her
briefly in between: the structure of DNA.
Early in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson were struggling
to build an accurate theoretical model of the DNA molecule, it
was Franklin’s meticulous X-ray diffraction photos and analysis
that gave them crucial clues to DNA’s structure, and allowed them
to win the race for the double helix. Franklin didn’t know that
there was a race going on, and she never knew that Crick and Watson
had access to her then-unpublished data.
Soon after the discovery, Franklin finished her DNA work and moved
on to another institution to study viruses. In 1962, four years
after her untimely death from ovarian cancer, Crick and Watson
received the Nobel Prize for their DNA model, still silent about
Franklin’s contributions. Watson’s 1968 memoir, The Double
Helix, featured an unkind caricature of Franklin, and provoked
outraged protests from her friends, family, and colleagues. Since
then she has been recognized and celebrated for her DNA research,
even becoming a feminist icon for some. Yet the DNA story often
obscures her other brilliant work.
“Rosalind Franklin was a gifted experimental scientist who greatly
expanded the application of X-ray crystallography to molecular
biology. Her X-ray diffraction studies were essential to modeling
complex biological molecules such as DNA and virus proteins,” said
Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D., director of the National Library of
Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London in 1920. She showed
an early aptitude for math and science, and chose to pursue a scientific
career while still in high school. She majored in physical chemistry
at Cambridge University, graduating in 1941. After a one-year research
fellowship at Cambridge, she became an assistant research officer
at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. There she
conducted original research into the micro-structure of different
types of coals, to better account for variations in their permeability
and other properties. In 1946 she took a research position at the
Central Laboratory of the National Chemical Department in Paris,
where she mastered X-ray crystallography, a technique for imaging
Franklin returned to England in 1951 to take a job at the now
famous Randall Biophysics Unit at King’s College, University of
London. There she used X-ray diffraction to look at the structure
of DNA, discovering that it could take two different forms, and
coming close to determining its helical configuration. Misunderstandings
and personality clashes kept her relatively isolated from her colleagues
there. One colleague, Maurice Wilkins, was in regular contact with
Watson and Crick at Cambridge, and showed them one of Franklin’s
X-ray diffraction photos, thus providing them crucial information
about DNA structure.
In early 1953 Franklin left King’s College for a more congenial
post at Birkbeck College, University of London. At Birkbeck she
assembled a talented research team and carried out X-ray diffraction
studies of plant viruses, notably tobacco mosaic virus. Using samples
contributed by virus laboratories in England, America, and Europe,
Franklin discovered how the virus protein shells are structured
and where the genetic material is located.
Profiles in Science was launched in September 1998 by the
National Library of Medicine. Located in Bethesda, Maryland,
the NLM is the world’s largest library of the health sciences.
For more information, visit the website at www.nlm.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.