Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin, Forgotten Discoverer of DNA

Rosalind Franklin

If you ever spend more than two hours in Cambridge (UK), you’re sure to walk past The Eagle Pub and hear the story of its claim to fame. It is here that James Watson and Francis Crick – of DNA prominence – celebrated discovering the “secret of life.” This jolly story of two scientists drinking to an incredible breakthrough conjures images of smiling men sitting around beer glasses talking excitedly about how they’ve just jolted science into a new era. And that’s probably a good enough estimation of what happened – except that there should have been at least one other person at their table: a woman. The lady in question died of ovarian cancer a few years after they had that beer, and her work, which hugely contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, was largely forgotten. That woman was Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (25 July 1920 – 16 April 1958) had a short but very eventful life, the work of which has been underappreciated for decades. Rosalind Franklin’s story is one of a brilliant child from a privileged background, making the most of what the circumstances of birth offered her. She was born into a wealthy, well-connected British family. Her father’s uncle was Herbert Samuel (later Viscount Samuel), appointed Home Secretary in 1916, and the first practising Jew to serve in the British Cabinet. Her aunt, Helen Carolin Franklin, was a trade unionist and suffragist married to the Attorney General of British Mandate of Palestine.

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