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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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Despite her cautious and diligent work ethic, Franklin had a personality conflict with colleague Maurice Wilkins, one that would end up costing her greatly. In January 1953, Wilkins changed the course of DNA history by disclosing without Franklin's permission or knowledge her Photo 51 to competing scientist James Watson, who was working on his own DNA model with Francis Crick at Cambridge.
Upon seeing the photograph, Watson said,
"My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race," according to author Brenda Maddox, who in 2002 wrote a book about Franklin titled Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA.
The two scientists did in fact use what they saw in Photo 51 as the basis for their famous model of DNA, which they published on March 7, 1953, and for which they received a Nobel Prize in 1962. Crick and Watson were also able to take most of the credit for the finding: When publishing their model in Nature magazine in April 1953, they included a footnote acknowledging that they were "stimulated by a general knowledge" of Franklin's and Wilkins' unpublished contribution, when in fact, much of their work was rooted in Franklin's photo and findings. Randall and the Cambridge laboratory director came to an agreement, and both Wilkins' and Franklin's articles were published second and third in the same issue of Nature. Still, it appeared that their articles were merely supporting Crick and Watson's.
According to Maddox, Franklin didn't know that these men based their Nature article on her research, and she didn't complain either, likely as a result of her upbringing. Franklin "didn't do anything that would invite criticism … [that was] bred into her," Maddox was quoted as saying in an October 2002 NPR interview.
Franklin left King's College in March 1953 and relocated to Birkbeck College, where she studied the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and the structure of RNA. Because Randall let Franklin leave on the condition that she would not work on DNA, she turned her attention back to studies of coal. In five years, Franklin published 17 papers on viruses, and her group laid the foundations for structural virology.
In the fall of 1956, Franklin discovered that she had ovarian cancer. She continued working throughout the following two years, despite having three operations and experimental chemotherapy. She experienced a 10-month remission and worked up until several weeks before her death on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37.
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