Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix

Lawrence Bush
April 15, 2018

Rosalind Franklin, who made key contributions to Crick and Watson’s formulation of the double-helix structure of DNA but received little credit for her work, died on this date in 1958 at age 37. Franklin was born in Notting Hill, London to a family involved in banking, government, trade union organizing and women’s suffrage. The family also took in two Jewish child refugees from Nazi Germany; Rosalind shared her room with a girl whose father had been sent to Buchenwald. Franklin’s own father disapproved of university education for women and refused to pay her tuition at Cambridge until her mother and aunt stepped in and insisted. Franklin’s work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA supplied “the data we actually used” to formulate the double-helix hypothesis in 1953, admitted Francis Crick, yet Franklin received only a footnote in their paper. “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her,” Crick later acknowledged. J.D. Bernal called her X-ray photographs of DNA “the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”

“In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.” —Rosalind Franklin, letter to her father, 1940

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.