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Rosalind Franklin’s life before her DNA research

Newnham College

Rosalind Franklin may have discovered the structure of DNA while she was at King’s College London, but her previous education and research experience were crucial in elucidating the structure of DNA.After passing her matriculation with six distinctions, Rosalind Franklin went to Newnham College, a woman constituent college of the University of Cambridge in 1938. At Newnham, she studied chemistry within the natural science tripos.

During her final year at Cambridge, she met a French refugee, Adrienne Weill. Adrienne was a former student of Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin’s Idol. She was a friend Rosalind very much needed at the time. Adrienne had a huge influence on her life and career. She also helped her to improve her spoken French. After three years studying at Newnham College, Cambridge University awarded Rosalind a Bachelor’s degree in 1941.

Research fellowship at Newnham College

After graduating, the University of Cambridge awarded Rosalind Franklin a research fellowship at Newnham College. She joined the physical chemistry laboratory of the University of Cambridge to work under Ronald Norrish, who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The experience at Norrish’s lab was not what she expected. It was a disaster. In her one year of work, she did not have much success. As described by his biographer, Norrish was “obstinate and almost perverse in an argument. He was overbearing and very sensitive to criticism”. Norrish could not decide for her what to work upon.

He was also succumbing to heavy drinking.

Franklin wrote that he made her despise him completely. Since there was no progress, she resigned from the fellowship.

Ph.D.

After resigning, she joined the British Coal Utilisation Research Association as an assistant research officer in 1942 as part of the required military service at the time. During her BCURA research, she volunteered as an Air Raid Warden and regularly made patrols to see the welfare of people during air raids. Air Raid warden are Volunteers of organizations whose job is to protect civilians from the danger of air raids. This shows her empathy and love for the people.

She studied the porosity of coal using helium to determine its density.

She helped in classifying coal and accurately predicting the performance of various coal for fuel purposes and for the production of wartime devices such as gas masks. This work was the basis of her Ph.D. thesis, “The physical chemistry of solid organic colloids with special reference to coal,” for which the University of Cambridge awarded her a Ph.D. in 1945. 

X-ray crystallography

After the war, she began looking for jobs. At a conference in the autumn of 1946, Weill introduced her to Marcel Mathieu, a director of the CNRS, the network of institutes that comprise the major part of the scientific research laboratories supported by the French government. This led to her appointment with Jacques Mering at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’État in Paris. She joined Mering’s Lab on 14 February 1947 as one of the fifteen researchers.

Mering was an X-ray crystallographer who applied X-ray diffraction to the study of rayon and other amorphous substances. He taught Rosalind the practical aspects of applying X-ray crystallography to amorphous substances. Franklin applied them to further problems related to coal and to other carbonaceous materials, in particular, the changes to the arrangement of atoms when these are converted to graphite. She published several further papers on this work which has become part of the mainstream of the physics and chemistry of coal and carbon. She coined the terms graphitizing and non-graphitizing carbon.

King’s College London

In 1950, they granted Franklin a three-year Turner & Newall Fellowship to work at King’s College London. With the experience of X-ray Crystallography, she packed her things and went to London, where she played a crucial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA alongside, Francis Crick and James Watson.

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