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Rosalind Franklin

Jack Stephens, Librarian, Science, Technology & Patents Department,
English chemist and X-ray crystallographer, Rosalind Elsie Franklin
Rosalind Franklin with microscope in 1955. Photo: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology/CC BY-SA

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-1958) was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose research was foundational to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, for which three male colleagues at King's College London won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. July 25 marks the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Her male colleagues—James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins—used unpublished DNA diffraction data that she had collected without her authorization in reaching their model for the helical structure of DNA for which they were honored. The discovery of the structure of DNA was a turning point in the history of science and introduced the modern era of biology.

Franklin could not be nominated for the Nobel Prize together with the three men because she had died in 1958 of ovarian cancer, quite possibly as a result of her work with radiation. The Nobel Committee did not, and still does not award posthumous awards. James Watson later said in an interview that Franklin should have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Posthumous honors include namings of numerous academic institutes and buildings, awards, plaques and statues.

Recommended Reading

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA
Maddox, Brenda

The sense of the subtitle of this 2003 biography of Rosalind Franklin is captured in a back-cover blurb which states that she was, “airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.” While the book focuses on the achievement for which she is now best known, this is a complete biography of Franklin from birth until her untimely death.

Women Pioneers of Medical Research
Chung, King-Thom

This biographical dictionary of 25 outstanding women scientists in the area of medical research—including the more well-known Florence Nightingale and Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie—provides on each figure a general introduction, together with information on her childhood, her education and family background, her importance within her field, and persons and events that affected her life and career.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - And the World
Swaby, Rachel

This collection provides brief overviews of women scientists grouped together under medicine, biology and the environment, genetics and development, physics, earth and stars, math and technology and invention. Less a formal biographical dictionary than a popular reader for those interested in women’s contributions to science around the world throughout history or as an inspiration to future research

The Human Side of Science
Wiggins, Arthur W.

This popular look behind the scenes of science and scientists includes humorous cartoons by Sidney Harris. The book focuses on the personalities and conflicts of great scientists to reveal the “human side” of scientific research and discovery.

Kid Scientists: True Tales of Childhood From Science Superstars
Stabler, David

Intended for readers ages 7-12 years old and part of the Kid Legends series, this book features 16 profiles of famous scientists during their childhood years, with whimsical color illustrations. The book provides a brief bibliography for further reading on each scientist, as well as a helpful index. The series is intended to show new readers that their heroes were once just like them.

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science
Des Jardins, Julie

Published by The Feminist Press at CUNY, this book sets out to “[dismantle] the myth of the lone male genius.” The book examines why and how it is that the history of women in science has been hidden, and seeks to rectify it with anecdotes and profiles of modern women scientists. A blurb for the book summarizes, “They often asked different questions, used different methods, and came up with different, groundbreaking explanations for phenomena in the natural world.”

The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time

Part of the Britannica Guide to the World's Most Influential People series, this book provides chronologically arranged, brief profiles on the most influential women from around the world throughout history. Thus is Rosalind Franklin ranked alongside queens and empresses, first ladies and prime ministers.

The 100 Most Influential Scientists of all Time

Also a part of the same Britannica series, this book provides profiles of the most influential scientists throughout history from around the world. Rosalind Franklin appears beside eight other women, and together with profiles of James Watson and Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize in 1962 based in large part on her research.