© Becta 2007© Becta 2007 © Becta 2007

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, in London, England, into a Jewish family. This family was well-educated, by society’s standards, and was active in many facets of their community (Maddox, 2002, p. 26).  Her uncle was the first person of Jewish heritage who served on the British Cabinet. This was a monumental happening because the Jew, at this time in Britain, was not a very popular character. “In the decades before the First World War (1880-1914), as thousands of Jews from Russia and Poland crowded into London’s East End, journalists, politicians, and anti-immigrant agitators introduced a vocabulary blending racial identity and criminality” (Knepper, 2006, ¶1).  For many, this would be enough of a deterrent to lead a quiet life and withdraw from societal confrontation; however, not succumbing to adversity ran in the Franklin family.

Despite being a woman during a time that greatly limited female social standing, her aunt was the Attorney General in the British Mandate of Palestine and was very active in women’s suffrage (Maddox, 2002, p. 21). The time period surrounding Rosalind’s birth was very much marked in terms of this battle for feminist rights. It was shortly thereafter, in 1928, women in Britain, and most other major European countries, were made equal to their male counterparts in regards to voting rights and citizenship. It was a world of opportunity to be born into for a young aspiring scientist.

As a youth, Rosalind attended one of the few science oriented schools in London and it was there that she proved her affluence at a young age. She was well-known by her teachers and peers. Additionally, she excelled in Latin as well as various sports (Maddox, 2002, p. 32). However, her real academic successes at the time were derived from a more scientific field. This being said, Rosalind thought it logical and practical to apply herself to her studies and in doing so, came to the decision to enroll in secondary education. These were different times and her father, Ellis, was very much against the thought of women going to college and pursuing academics. This was actually a prevalent theme of this era. Joan Myerson Shrager, an early 20th century Penn State graduate, gives a unique insight regarding this over-masculine mindset. “My mother, a 1930 Penn grad, remembers being chased out of class by a male professor who shouted at her, ‘I don’t teach women!’” (Shrager, 2007, 1930-1939 ¶1).

© 2004-2008 Sean McHugh© 2004-2008 Sean McHugh

© 2004-2008 Sean McHughThese were discouraging times for women trying to obtain an education in a very male-driven academic arena. However, despite this hurdle, the then fifteen-year-old Franklin daughter decided she was to become a scientist and went to study at Newnham College. After four years of academic prosperity, she subsequently decided to work towards a doctorate at Cambridge University, where she later received her PhD. The next three years of her life she began working with X-ray diffraction and proved her worth at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat in Paris.

Although her discovery of DNA’s structure was the most magnanimous of her accomplishments, she did go on to publish seventeen books and provide much needed research for other findings including the location of the phosphate sugar molecule with in the DNA’s structure. Late in the summer of 1956, Rosalind Franklin became deathly ill with ovarian cancer due to her continual exposure to radiation and X-rays. She died on April 16, 1958, but her findings continue to live on. Today her discoveries are taught in college classrooms worldwide. She was a pioneer in the search for answers regarding what was then the mystery of DNA, as well as an advocate for women in a very male-dominated profession.