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Tuesday, February 6, 2007


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Papers of Rosalind Franklin Added to the National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science Website

The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, announces the release of an extensive selection from the papers of Rosalind Franklin, a chemist and crystallographer who did ground breaking work in shedding light on the structure of DNA, on its Profiles in Science website at http://www.profiles.nlm.nih.gov.

The online exhibit features correspondence, published articles, photos, lab notebooks, and reports from Franklin’s files. An introductory exhibit section places Franklin’s achievements in historical context.

The Library, in collaboration with the Churchill Archives Center at Cambridge University, has digitized and made available over the World Wide Web a selection of the Franklin Papers for use by educators, researchers, and the public. This brings to 21 the number of notable researchers and public health officials whose personal and professional records are featured on the site.

photo of Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin

Franklin began her scientific career analyzing the structure of coal and carbon during World War II, and became an internationally recognized expert in that field. For five years before her premature death, she did path-breaking research that elucidated the structure of plant viruses. Yet chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) is now best known for the research that occupied her briefly in between: the structure of DNA.

Early in 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson were struggling to build an accurate theoretical model of the DNA molecule, it was Franklin’s meticulous X-ray diffraction photos and analysis that gave them crucial clues to DNA’s structure, and allowed them to win the race for the double helix. Franklin didn’t know that there was a race going on, and she never knew that Crick and Watson had access to her then-unpublished data.

Soon after the discovery, Franklin finished her DNA work and moved on to another institution to study viruses. In 1962, four years after her untimely death from ovarian cancer, Crick and Watson received the Nobel Prize for their DNA model, still silent about Franklin’s contributions. Watson’s 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, featured an unkind caricature of Franklin, and provoked outraged protests from her friends, family, and colleagues. Since then she has been recognized and celebrated for her DNA research, even becoming a feminist icon for some. Yet the DNA story often obscures her other brilliant work.

“Rosalind Franklin was a gifted experimental scientist who greatly expanded the application of X-ray crystallography to molecular biology. Her X-ray diffraction studies were essential to modeling complex biological molecules such as DNA and virus proteins,” said Donald A. B. Lindberg, M.D., director of the National Library of Medicine.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born in London in 1920. She showed an early aptitude for math and science, and chose to pursue a scientific career while still in high school. She majored in physical chemistry at Cambridge University, graduating in 1941. After a one-year research fellowship at Cambridge, she became an assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. There she conducted original research into the micro-structure of different types of coals, to better account for variations in their permeability and other properties. In 1946 she took a research position at the Central Laboratory of the National Chemical Department in Paris, where she mastered X-ray crystallography, a technique for imaging molecular structures.

Franklin returned to England in 1951 to take a job at the now famous Randall Biophysics Unit at King’s College, University of London. There she used X-ray diffraction to look at the structure of DNA, discovering that it could take two different forms, and coming close to determining its helical configuration. Misunderstandings and personality clashes kept her relatively isolated from her colleagues there. One colleague, Maurice Wilkins, was in regular contact with Watson and Crick at Cambridge, and showed them one of Franklin’s X-ray diffraction photos, thus providing them crucial information about DNA structure.

In early 1953 Franklin left King’s College for a more congenial post at Birkbeck College, University of London. At Birkbeck she assembled a talented research team and carried out X-ray diffraction studies of plant viruses, notably tobacco mosaic virus. Using samples contributed by virus laboratories in England, America, and Europe, Franklin discovered how the virus protein shells are structured and where the genetic material is located.

Profiles in Science was launched in September 1998 by the National Library of Medicine. Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the NLM is the world’s largest library of the health sciences. For more information, visit the website at www.nlm.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.


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