In the second of this series celebrating legends of the lab coat, we turn our attention to Rosalind Franklin.
First off, did you know that DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid?
Second off, did you know that a woman named Rosalind Franklin was instrumental in uncovering the structure and composition of DNA before being primarily written out of its origin story?
In recent years, Rosalind Franklin’s fate has gained notoriety as one of a woman whose scientific work was overlooked during her lifetime.
A quick Google search of the discovery of DNA’s structure will accredit the work to two fellows by the name of James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The duo would go on to claim a Nobel Prize for their work on the matter in 1962. But what of the woman in the white lab coat whose work was so critical in forging the bridge that Watson and Crick eventually crossed?
In 1961, Crick recorded in a letter that the data which helped them pin down the structure of DNA was constructed mainly by Franklin herself.
So, how did Franklin come within touching distance of an Everest of scientific discovery, only for her figurative blood, sweat, and tear stained white lab coat work to be (almost) forgotten in the pages of history?
The foundation in question which led to this structuring of DNA was a photograph produced by Franklin and two co-workers, Maurice Wilkins and Raymond Gosling. They named the photograph Photograph 51.
Franklin was initially assigned to this task due to her early lab expertise in crystallography and X-ray diffraction. Photograph 51 was the first diffraction image revealing the atomic structure of DNA. When a crystallized sample is exposed to X-rays, the atoms within diffract the rays in different direction dictated by Bragg’s law. The pattern of light and dark spots produced from this diffraction can be used to work out the sample's atomic structure.
However, before Photograph 51 was published, Wilkins shared the photograph with fellow lab coat wearers Crick, another DNA researcher. The photograph’s crisp resolution and specific details allowed Crick and Watson the ‘Eureka’ breakthrough they required to finally roll up the sleeves of their white lab coats and build the first accurate DNA model, rocking the socks off of the scientific world in the process.
Thanks to Photograph 51, Watson and Crick were able to solve the double helix structure and pin down DNA, the building block of life itself. The duo published their findings in Nature, a science journal well-read by lab coat wearers. Still, their report declined to include any reference to the initial building block, Photograph 51, which allowed them to get their model off the ground. Thus, kick-starting the hullabaloo that led to Franklin being sidelined from the discovery that changed forever how we view the creation of all life.
Adding insult to injury, Watson would later joke that the acquisition of the data was “burglary” and even went as far as to tell Wilkins (one of Franklin’s co-workers on the Photograph 51 project) that the theft was only a bit of fun between friends. Talk about vibes of mad white lab coat wearing scientist indeed!
At the Coal Front
While perhaps being best known now for the X-ray diffraction image aka Photograph 51, in truth, this image amounts to a mere slither of the scientific achievements that Franklin racked up in her white lab coat. A true science-head, she worked across biology, chemistry, and physics and, in fact, got her start studying coal (one can imagine the amount of white lab coats she ran through during this time) as a research chemist in the British Coal Utilization Research Association. Her significant work on the structure of coals earned her a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1945.
In this Ph.D., Franklin helped to evaluate the density, structure, and composition of coal. This critical fossil fuel was used widely to heat homes and to power the industry at the time. Franklin’s key aim with this study was to learn how to make coal burn more efficiently. This was also a critical factor in the effectiveness of Second World War gas masks, which contained activated charcoal filters. This indirectly boosted the designs of the personal protective equipment during the war years.
Franklin’s coal research firmly established her reputation as an authoritative and dependable white lab coat figure. Her subsequent coal-focused discovery was one of the most important contributions to coal science. This was the discovery that the carbon formed as coal burns falls into two categories, graphitizing or non-graphitizing. Each has a distinct molecular structure. This work unveiled the key differences between coke and char; the two outputs of burning coal. For instance, coke could be transformed into crystalline graphite at high temperatures, but char could not. By helping to explain why coke burns so efficiently it led the way for industrial processes to learn how to create vast quantities of heat, such as smelting steel foundries.
Public Enemy Number One: Viruses
Not satisfied to dominate in one field, Franklin next shifted her scientific curiosity to viruses (while her white lab coat may not have been as dirty to the visible eye as during her time working with coal, stick it under a microscope and see how clean it was!). During the 1950s, she spent five years at Birkbeck College in London implementing her X-ray experience to calculate the composition of RNA in the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), a sickness that attacks plants and eradicates tobacco crops. TMV was discovered in the 1890s when researchers were endeavoring to isolate the pathogen that was maltreating the plants and found that it was too small to be a bacterium.
With the structure of TMV solved, Franklin began to study other plant viruses that were blighting vital agricultural crops, including the potato, peas, tomatoes, and turnips. Then, in 1957, she swiveled again to begin studying the virus that causes polio, a true ‘baddy’ to the white lab coat world in the 20th century. Polio was structurally identical to the turnip yellow mosaic virus, making Franklin’s experience a trump card in tackling the virus head on. At the time, polio was a feared communicable disease. It has since been chiefly eradicated from the globe.
The Legacy of DNA’s Discovery
While Franklin’s accomplishments were ground-breaking at the time, her work on Photograph 51 has continued to lead to exceptional breakthroughs in science.
For instance, the role of DNA in forensic evidence-gathering has become increasingly essential. Without discovering DNA, we would not be able to identify individuals from just a handful of cells today.
Meaning forensic science has been radically changed by the discoveries that Franklin and her co-workers found. The ability to use DNA in a legal setting has revolutionized how crimes can be solved and successfully prosecuted. It enables the possibility of a second chance for justice being sought, often long after the crime has been committed. Retrospective justice no longer depends on deathbed confessions. The most insignificant slithers of our bones, blood, hair, skin, or body fluids can now create vital crime-scene clues to those in a white lab coat who know how to read them. Amazingly, this has the power to reel a person back in, through decades, even through death, to face the truth about a previously unsolved crime - see the Golden State Killer. This sounds like something from a Ridley Scott movie, not actual facts, but such is the modern world thanks to Franklin’s pioneering!
Moreover, DNA knowledge has brought improved the white lab coat medical world with treatments, new drugs, and better disease diagnoses. It has increased crop yields, which is a life-saving invention in third-world countries, and helps to elevate the nutritional value of foods, and is helping to develop replacement tissues for worn-out joints.
One of the coolest things about DNA is that it makes time endless in the sense that multiple generations later, a smile can be repeated like a design pattern down a genetic lineage. Most importantly, the structure of DNA revealed how it can be copied – each half of the double helix acting as a template. This beautifully simple mechanism carried DNA, encoding an increasingly complicated message, from the origins of life to the present day – see Jurassic Park, or err, more accurately one supposes, Dolly the Sheep!
Simply put, the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 changed the world. Understanding the shape of that molecule—which contains instructions for life in organisms of all types—has completely revolutionized the way we understand gene-related disorders, inheritance of traits, genetic mutations, and the evolution of species.
Remembering a Legend
Sadly, Franklin was not long for the world. During a trip to the US in 1956, she first noticed that she was having difficulty fitting into her clothes due to an unusually bloated stomach. Upon her return to London, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, resulting in mutations in the DNA of her own cells. True to form, she did not let her illness interfere with her work and continued to work steadily in her white lab coat, publishing half a dozen or more scientific papers in the next two years. She died in April of 1958 at the tender age of 37.
When the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Watson and Crick in 1962, Franklin was not endowed posthumously. Neither her part in that award nor her scientific excellence was recognized at that period.
Although she may have missed out on a Nobel Prize, she is remembered in many ways. Her name graces awards, science institutes, and even an entire university in Chicago. And in 2022, her legacy will extend into space as the planned robotic rover named Rosalind Franklin sets off to explore Mars.
Today, numerous books and articles still fight her quarters for and accuse the scientific establishment of not giving Rosalind Franklin the recognition she deserved for her role in discovering the structure of DNA. She is often cited as an example of sexism and discrimination against women in science.
A Feminist Icon
A play starring Nicole Kidman called Photograph 51 examines many of Franklin's challenges throughout her career, and notes that these were mainly caused by her female gender. For instance, her colleagues repeatedly addressed her as “Ms. Franklin” instead of “Dr. Franklin."
Her own dad apparently told her that science was no place for a woman and actively discouraged her aspirations. While her Ph.D. supervisor at Cambridge, eventual Nobel Laureate Ronald G.W. Norrish, called her “stubborn and difficult to supervise.”
More damaging, Watson, as already referenced above, seemed to take no responsibility for not accrediting any credit to Franklin even though his Nobel Prize was backboned by the breakthrough work that she accomplished and paved forward for him. In his memoir, even though she hated being called by the name in day-to-day life, he references her throughout as “Rosy”. In one passage he writes that due to her “belligerent moods,” she “either had to go or be put in her place.” He also noted that she did not even possess a “mild interest in clothes” (apart from her trusted white lab coat one assumes) and refused to “emphasize her feminine qualities.” Moreover, he and Crick chose not to reveal the extent to which their model depended on her DNA photograph.
Ironically, Franklin’s sister credits the robust response to Watson’s critical portrayal of her sister in his memoir to the resurfacing of Franklin’s work and the final recognition of the proper role she played.
Given her fantastic work on coal and viruses, it is a shame that Franklin is mostly remembered chiefly for not receiving full credit for her contributions to the discovery of DNA’s structure. As discussed, her career and contributions are much much more than that of a wronged woman in a white lab coat. Critically, especially in today’s COVID-19 riven world, an inscription on her tombstone reads: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind.”
As the world remains gripped in the headaches of a global pandemic in 2021, Franklin’s passion and work in the area of viruses alone is a legacy worth appreciating and remembering.