LBS 333        Topics in the History of Genetics and Molecular Biology    Fall 2000


Rosalind Elsie Franklin
(July 25, 1920-April 16, 1958)


Certainly [Rosalind] has been used, thanks to The Double Helix, to menace bright and intellectually ambitious girls. I went once to a public meeting of a local school board and heard a man stand up to demand that science requirements for girls be dropped from the high school curriculum because he had a daughter, and he "didn't want her to group up like that woman Rosy-what's-her-name in that book." I think I wept.  It was not much consolation to know that the high-school curriculum is fixed beyond the meddling of local boards at the demand of local extremists.  But that man has a daughter, for all I know an intelligent and gifted one, and I do not really like to contemplate her future.

                                   Ann Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, pl 196.

The Last Years of Rosalind Franklin

After leaving King's College and joining Birkbeck College, Franklin directed her attention to the study of viruses composed of RNA and protein.  In the five years before her death, Franklin's "group outlined the general molecular structure of several RNA-containing viruses and helped lay the foundation of structural virology.  Ath the time, her group was the world's leader in using X-ray diffraction to uncover the molecular structure of viruses" (McGrayne, 326).  Her work on tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) structure extended significantly Watson's earlier dabblings and revealed that TMV protein coat, although possessing helical features, was much more complex than Watson had speculated in 1952.

Although Franklin never really became friends with James Watson, referring to him at times as "the horrible American," she did  become close friends with Francis and Odile Crick, and she even took a travelling vacation with them through southern Spain in the summer of 1956.  That year she also had a severe argument with the man who was in charge of the agency funding her research. She returned from the divisive meeting extremely bitter and in tears, complaining that "the ARC refuses to support any project that has a woman directing it" (qtd in McGrayne, 327).  Her research was rescued when friends arranged that she be supported by a three-year grant from the U. S. Public Health Service.

Franklin travelled widely in 1956, reporting the results of her virus structure research. She visited several U. S. laboratories, including those at Cal Tech, Washington University, Yale, and U. C. Berkeley.  At Berkeley, she worked for a month with Wendell Stanley, the man who won a Noble Prize for the crystallization of Tobacco Mosaic Virus.  According to one story, while at Berkeley, Rosalind couldn't find a ride to a lab picnic because, warned previously from Watson about the belligerent British woman who had made life difficult for him, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, the various lab scientists and students managed to avoid volunteering to give her a ride.  As it turned out, Stanley drove her to the picnic, where the students found that she was actually a very spirited and fun-loving person.

One of her last research efforts centered on the structure of the polio virus.  For a time she kept a sample of crystalized polio virus in a thermos in her family's refrigerator!  Her work on a dangerous, infectious virus in less that safe laboratory conditions has been seen as courageous, since at the time polio was still a major health threat because many people still had not received the Salk vaccine, which had been available only for three years. By this time, however, Franklin knew that she was dying of cancer.

In 1957, the Brussels World's Fair committee asked Franklin to build two models of virus molecules to display at the 1958 World's Fair.  She and her group designed and assembled a model of TMV for the occasion. Today, you can see the six-foot model, in the window of the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the new lab outside of Cambridge that the Cavendish group and others migrated to in the late fifties.  Upon Crick's suggestion, Rosalind had arranged for her group to move there as well. But she didn't survive long enough to see her models displayed in Brussels nor to make the move back to Cambridge University, where she had begun her university education less than twenty years before.

According to a biographer, "The day after organizing a supper party for her parents' fortieth wedding anniversary, she checked into a hospital for the last time.  By her bedside, she kept an invitation from a Venezuelan laboratory to spend a year in Caracas." (McGrayne, 329).

Her last paper was scheduled to be read to the Faraday Society in London on April 16, 1958.  On that same day, she died--about the time of the reading.

Four years later, when James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins accepted the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, not one of the three Nobel lectures that they gave cited Franklin's work.  Wilkins did, however, mention her in his acknowledgments.