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Rosalind Franklin works at a microscope.

British scientist Rosalind Franklin at work on the microscope.

Photograph from Science Source

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published July 25, 2013

The inspiration for Thursday's Google Doodle might not be as well known as others. But make no mistake—she has played a vital role in scientific history.

Rosalind Franklin, a female British biophysicist who is best known for her work in the 1950s, would have turned 93 today. Today's Google logo illustrates her most important discovery: an arrow follows her line of vision to the center of a DNA strand, the structure of which she photographed in 1951.

Franklin was in many ways responsible for our current understanding of DNA structures, but history has largely excluded her from recognition up until recent years.

Born in 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin used x-rays to take a picture of DNA that would change biology.

Hers is perhaps one of the most well-known—and shameful—instances of a researcher being robbed of credit, said Ruth Lewin Sime, a retired chemistry professor at Sacramento City College who has written on women in science. (See "6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism.")

Franklin graduated with a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University in 1945, then spent three years at an institute in Paris, where she learned x-ray diffraction techniques, or the ability to determine the molecular structures of crystals. (Learn more about her education and qualifications.)

She returned to England in 1951 as a research associate in John Randall's laboratory at King's College in London and soon encountered Maurice Wilkins, who was leading his own research group studying the structure of DNA.

Franklin and Wilkins worked on separate DNA projects, but by some accounts, Wilkins mistook Franklin's role in Randall's lab as that of an assistant rather than head of her own project.

Meanwhile, James Watson and Francis Crick, both at Cambridge University, were also trying to determine the structure of DNA. They communicated with Wilkins, who at some point showed them Franklin's image of DNA—known as Photo 51—without her knowledge.

Photo 51 enabled Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to deduce the correct structure for DNA, which they published in a series of articles in the journal Nature in April 1953. Franklin also published in the same issue, providing further details on DNA's structure.

Franklin's image of the DNA molecule was key to deciphering its structure, but only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work.

Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 in London, four years before Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the Nobel. Since Nobel prizes aren't awarded posthumously, we'll never know whether Franklin would have received a share in the prize for her work. (Learn more about Franklin and Photo 51.)

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

8 comments
Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

Thanks for your thoughts. I can understand where some folks are coming from in terms of feeling like the word female in the headline would almost do a disservice to Franklin's work.

However, her gender was an important part of what happened to her as a scientist, so I feel it should stay in the headline.

This is obviously a subject with strong opinions, so I'd like to know what others think.

Victoria Johnson
Victoria Johnson

Imagine this: "Google Doodle Honors Legendary Male Scientist Heinrich Hertz"

Ridiculous, right? Change the headline. It's embarrassing.

Wendy Wolfberg
Wendy Wolfberg

I agree the use is relevant - it draws attention to her, something she was not awarded. I appreciate Google's focus on her. Like Einstein's wife, who's scholarly input was critical to his success yet he divorced and abandoned her, those we take for granted and dismiss as not as important are so easily forgotten.

David Fernandes
David Fernandes

Since the article and history suggest she may not have received adequate credit or consultation in the 1950s because she was female, it's clearly relevant to the story and appropriate to the headline.

d n
d n

"Female" Scientist - such a regressive headline...please change this to Scientist.

Michael T.
Michael T.

The word scientist does not require the adjective female.


Chrissen Gemmill
Chrissen Gemmill

I agree, as one of only two full time women scientists in a department of 28, it is sad that in 2013, we still are not on equal footing.

Gary B.
Gary B.

@Wendy Wolfberg 

this is a completely unfounded stereotype about Einstein. He, but not his first wife continued to do groundbreaking work long after their separation. Spreading misinformation does a disservice to real women's issues. 

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