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British chemist Rosalind Franklin is best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA ,and for her pioneering use of X-ray diffraction.
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Born in 1920 in London, Rosalind Franklin earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. She learned crystallography and X-ray diffraction, techniques that she applied to DNA fibers. One of her photographs provided key insights into DNA structure. Other scientists used it as the basis for their DNA model and took credit for the discovery. Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, at age 37.
British chemist Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born into an affluent and influential Jewish family on July 25, 1920, in Notting Hill, London, England. She displayed exceptional intelligence from early childhood, knowing from the age of 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. She received her education at several schools, including North London Collegiate School, where she excelled in science, among other things.
Rosalind Franklin enrolled at Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1938 and studied chemistry. In 1941, she was awarded Second Class Honors in her finals, which, at that time, was accepted as a bachelor's degree in the qualifications for employment. She went on to work as an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she studied the porosity of coal—work that was the basis of her 1945 Ph.D. thesis "The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal."
In the fall of 1946, Franklin was appointed at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l'Etat in Paris, where she worked with crystallographer Jacques Mering. He taught her X-ray diffraction, which would largely play into her discovery of "the secret of life"—the structure of DNA. In addition, Franklin pioneered the use of X-rays to create images of crystalized solids in analyzing complex, unorganized matter, not just single crystals.
In January 1951, Franklin began working as a research associate at the King's College London in the biophysics unit, where director John Randall used her expertise and X-ray diffraction techniques (mostly of proteins and lipids in solution) on DNA fibers. Studying DNA structure with X-ray diffraction, Franklin and her student Raymond Gosling made an amazing discovery: They took pictures of DNA and discovered that there were two forms of it, a dry "A" form and a wet "B" form. One of their X-ray diffraction pictures of the "B" form of DNA, known as Photograph 51, became famous as critical evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. The photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself had refined.
John Desmond Bernal, one of the United Kingdom’s most well-known and controversial scientists and a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, spoke highly of Franklin around the time of her death in 1958. "As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook," he said. "Her photographs were 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."
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