Skip to content

Search the Roberta Bondar Site

Molecule Mapper

On July 25, 1920, biophysicist, crystallographer, and pioneer molecular biologist Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born. She studied natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. Pursuing graduate studies but wishing to contribute to a national effort, Franklin joined the British Coal Utilization Research Association, measuring and identifying carbon and graphite microstructures to create a classification of coals from which to predict their performance. Returning to Cambridge, she used her work experience to produce a dissertation that explained why some coal-like structures form graphite at high temperatures, while others never do.

In Paris at Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat, Franklin spent three years learning and mastering the techniques of x-ray crystallography in its application to complex substances. Extensively trained, well-published, and an established world expert in the structure of carbon compounds, she returned to London where she was offered a position as a research associate at King’s College. Franklin became part of a group using sugar phosphate from which to determine the structure of DNA – a biological molecule that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of almost all known living organisms. Franklin succeeded in providing the first crystals pure enough to return useable x-ray diffraction photos. Both her x-ray photos and her summary of research submitted to the Medical Research Council provided all the proof, support, and missing pieces her other lab associates required to propose their theory of the structure of DNA as a double helix in shape.

Even by the time that paper was published, Franklin was already across town at Birbeck College, and onto her new and more exciting challenge – the study and description of an entire virus. Since many viruses use RNA instead of DNA as their genetic material, she wanted to map these only known DNA exceptions. To spice up the challenge, RNA molecules assume a wide variety of shapes and many different functions as well. Franklin and her Birbeckian colleagues had their work cut out for them but discoveries and successes followed. She made extended visits to the USA and collaborated with some of its best virus researchers.

When she wasn’t in her lab, she was steadily publishing results and speaking at conferences around the world. For the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair Science Exhibition, The Royal Institute asked Franklin to construct large-scale models of rod-shaped and spherical viruses she had described. Unfortunately for the molecular sciences, she died in London the day before the World’s Fair opened. Franklin’s research, however, was presented at the World’s Fair and to the global praise and acknowledgement it deserved.

Franklin had ensured her research team was properly funded to continue its ongoing research into, among others, the poliovirus. Several years later, her colleagues with whom she worked on both DNA and RNA became Nobel laureates and all have acknowledged the critical importance of her research data to their successes. Franklin had provided the first data map of the DNA molecule then eagerly undertaken mapping more complex RNA molecules. Her solid foundation in molecular crystallography provided database and tools for the mapping of molecular bits or units of DNA and RNA – genes – then genomes… proteomes… and more.

Rosalind Franklin’s “Life in Discovery” – her legacy of excellence, trailblazing science research, and commitment to social justice – is honoured in the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Illinois, that includes five specialty graduate schools.

The Rosalind Franklin Society recognizes the work of outstanding women scientists and brings the significant contributions and impact of their scientific research to the attention of the public, policy makers, and international media. Franklin’s name also continues to be memorialized in diverse awards, medals, and academic lectures by organizations that include the Royal Society, Genetics Society of America, National Cancer Institute, Argonne National Laboratory, US Department of Energy.

Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award front (left) and back (right)

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage