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The ‘forgotten scientist’ of DNA – 60 years on

Dr Rosalind Franklin revealed the secret structure of the DNA molecule which governs heredity. 60 years after her death on 16 April 1958, aged only 37, she is coming into her own.

As a research scientist at Kings in 1952, Rosalind Franklin captured the famous ‘Photo 51’ that showed, for the first time, that DNA molecules had a clear X-shaped pattern.

When this photograph was shown to James Watson and Francis Crick of Cambridge University, it confirmed their hypothesis that DNA had a double helical structure and they were able to build a model of the molecule in February 1953. This was the beginning of a greater understanding of our genes and has allowed generations of scientists to delve deeper in to human heredity and develop treatments for genetic diseases. 

In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins of King’s were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. The Prize is never awarded posthumously, so the question of whether Franklin should have been included could not arise, but Franklin’s contributions have been consistently underplayed in favour of those of her male colleagues. 

In the last few years, however, her crucial contributions to the DNA discovery and to science more broadly have become more widely recognised.

 

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The Royal Society has an annual award named after her and, in 2015, the story of her discovery was brought to life in London’s West End in the play, Photograph 51. Her name is also immortalised in King’s Franklin Wilkins Building at Waterloo and The Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago.

 In 2017, it was announced that a new innovative science and technology research centre near Oxford, UK will be named the Rosalind Franklin Institute. This helps to ensure that memory of her achievements and contribution to society lives on over half a century after her death.