This is not a happy story, or at least not a happy one in conventional terms. This is the story of a girl with frail health who adored science and sports, with immense curiosity and extraordinary capacity for work who died far too young without fully realising how her work would change the course of modern science.
Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920 in a caring family of Jewish origin who encouraged her to devote herself to science. She entered the University of Cambridge just before the outbreak of the Second World War, at a time when women were still not allowed to be officially graduated (they only received a diploma despite having taken the same exams as their male colleagues) and when Cambridge imposed a quota of no more than 10% of female students of the total number of potential graduates.
Her inquisitive mind led her to study the porosity of coal and crystallography. After having obtained her PhD. in 1945 with a dissertation on physical chemistry, she moved to Paris where she obtained a position in the laboratory of Jacques Mering, from whom she learnt x-ray diffraction techniques, which would be so important for her future career.
She returned eventually to London and took up a position at King’s College London, where she and her PhD. student Raymond Gosling made the famous photograph 51 that confirmed the helix structure of the DNA.
What followed is still a matter of debate: someone else from King’s College showed the photograph to Watson and Crick in Cambridge who, with this data, could finally confirm and publish the model of the DNA double-helix, for which they obtained the Nobel Prize in 1962. By the time of their publication, Rosalind had accepted a new position at Birkbeck College London where she focused on researching the protein structure of several viruses.
Unfortunately, an untimely cancer took her in 1958, three months short of her 38th birthday. The quality and rigour of her research, which she published extensively in peer-reviewed journals, is just a glimpse of what she could have achieved if she had had more time. Her early passing also saved her the bitterness to seeing how her colleagues took full credit, and a Nobel Prize, for something she had discovered first and for which they never duly credited her. Her ambition, however, was never to make a point about being a female scientist, her ambition was always to be the best possible scientist, and that she certainly achieved.