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Picture of Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin


Additional Information
As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs.

-- J. D. Bernal [1958 N]

Some Important Contributions:

Best known for her work on DNA, not only the excellent X-ray diffraction photographs which she obtained by painstaking and systematic work, but also her insight into what they implied.

Rosalind Franklin made crucial contributions to the solution of the structure of DNA. She discovered the B form, recognized that two states of the DNA molecule existed and defined conditions for the transition. From early on, she realized that any correct model must have the phosphate groups on the outside of the molecule. She laid the basis for the quantitative study of the diffraction patterns, and after the formation of the Watson - Crick model she demonstrated that a double helix was consistent with the X-ray patterns of both the A and B forms. -- Sir Aaron Klug [1968 N]

Her colleague Maurice Wilkins, without obtaining her permission, made available to Watson and Crick her then unpublished X-ray diffraction pattern of the B form of DNA , which was crucial evidence for the helical structure. In his account of this discovery, Watson wrote

"The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race.... the black cross of reflections which dominated the picture could arise only from a helical structure... mere inspection of the X-ray picture gave several of the vital helical parameters." [dh1980jw]

Work on tobacco mosaic virus:

"Using the method of isomorphous replacement, she showed that the virus particle was not solid, as had been previously thought, but actually a hollow tube. ... [Her work] showed that the ribonucleic acid was not to be found in the central cavity but embedded in the protein." -- J. D. Bernal [1958 N]

After her untimely death, her unpublished hypothesis that TMV RNA is a single-strand helix was confirmed. [dsb1981ro] [1958 N]

Early work on carbons:

    "In a series of beautifully executed researches, she discovered the fundamental distinction between carbons that turned into graphite on heating and those that did not, and further related this difference to the chemical constitution of the molecules from which the chars were made." -- J. D. Bernal [1958 N]

Some Important Publications:

"Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate," Nature 171: 740 (1953), with R.G. Gosling.

"The Structure of Sodium Thymonucleate Fibres: I. The Influence of Water Content," Acta Crystallographica 6: 673 (1953), with R.G. Gosling.

"Evidence for a 2-chain Helix in the Crystalline Structure of Sodium Deoxyribonucleate," Nature 172: 156 (1953), with R.G. Gosling.

"Tobacco Mosaic Virus: An Application of the Method of Isomorphous Replacement to the Determination of the Helical Parameters and Radial Density Distribution," Acta Crystallographica 11: 213 (1958).

"The Structure of Viruses as Determined by X-ray Diffraction," Plant Pathology: Problems and Progress, 1908-1958, C.S. Holton, et al. (eds.), University of Wisconsin Press 1959, with D.L.D. Caspar and A. Klug. This was published posthumously, and is introduced with A tribute to Dr.Franklin by W.M. Stanley.

"The Interpretation of Diffuse X-ray Diagrams of Carbon," Acta Crystallographica 3: 107 (1950).

"Crystallite Growth in Graphitizing and Nongraphitizing Carbons," Proceedings of the Royal Society A209: 196 (1951).


1951-58 Turner-Newall Research Fellowship

The Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins in 1962 for their DNA work. Owing to her untimely death in 1958, the award could not have gone to Franklin. The view has been expressed that her contribution to the discovery was comparable to those who did receive the award. [26 SBM]


1942-1946 Assistant Research Officer, British Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA)
1947-1950 Cherucheur, Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'État, Paris
1951-1953 Turner-Newall Research Fellow, King's College, University of London
1953-1958 Turner-Newall Research Fellow, Birkbeck College, University of London


B.A. Newnham College, Cambridge University 1941
Ph.D. Cambridge University 1945

References consulted

[dm1996cds], [5A11 DSB], [n1974fc], [pp1959rf], [wos1990mt], [26 SBM], [rfd1975as], [1968 N], [1958 N], [dh1980jw]

Biographies of Rosalind Franklin and some further accounts of her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA :

Anne Piper Light on a Dark Lady

Ann Sayre, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, W.W. Norton & Co., New York 1975.

James Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Atheneum, New York 1968. The Norton Critical Edition of this book (W. W. Norton & Co. 1980) has included some reviews, commentaries, and original papers.

Horace Freeland Judson, "Annals of Science: the Legend of Rosalind Franklin," Science Digest 94: 56 (January 1986).

Aaron Klug, "Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the Structure of DNA," Nature 219: 808 (1968).

Max Perutz, Letter to the Editor, Science 164: 1537 (1969).

Additional Information/Comments

Some of Franklin's important contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were posthumously reported by Francis Crick and James Watson. For example, Watson reports that they had to abandon their early three chain model of DNA after she pointed out that the phosphates in the molecule were likely hydrated and on the outside.[dh1980jw]

Frances Crick wrote that

"Rosalind Franklin was only two steps away from the solution [of the structure of DNA]. She needed to realize that the two [sugar-phosphate] chains must run in opposite directions and that the bases, in their correct tautomeric form, were paired together." [n1974fc]

The historian of science Robert Olby described Franklin as

" a deft experimentalist, keenly observant and with an immense capacity for taking pains. As a result she was able with difficult material to achieve a remarkable standard of resolution in her X-ray diagrams. Although a bold experimentalist, she was critical of speculation, favoring an inductive approach which proved very successful in her work on coals and TMV but which allowed others to get ahead of her in her work on DNA." [5A11 DSB]
At the request of The Royal Society (London) Franklin mounted an exhibit at the World's Fair in Brussels (1958) on the structure of DNA and the structure of small viruses.

Franklin enjoyed French culture and French conversation; Ann Sayre reports that "she was credited by her [French] colleagues with speaking the best French any of them had ever heard in a foreign mouth." [rfd1975as]

Submitted by:

Martha Keyes

Field Editor: Professor Kenneth Trueblood, UCLA


Copyright © CWP and Regents of the University of California 1997

To cite this citation:
" Franklin, Rosalind." CWP
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Last revision 5/16/97, 4/27/01(Piper article linked) nb