Rosalind Franklin – chemist and X-ray crystallographer

To commemorate the College’s bicentenary in 2023, we’re showcasing 200 ‘Birkbeck Effects’ which capture the incredible stories of our vibrant and diverse community, highlighting their achievements and impact on the world. 


Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and expert in crystallography who first photographed DNA to reveal its double-helix shape uncovering the mystery behind how life is passed down from generation to generation. Her commitment to the highest standards of scientific research is said to have brought “lasting benefit to mankind.”

Before that, her research specialty was coal and she was at the forefront of techniques in X-ray crystallography, which had only been used to investigate a limited range of matter by the early 1950s.

While James Watson and Francis Crick famously got the credit for ‘discovering’ the structure of DNA, it is generally accepted that Franklin’s research was more advanced. They admitted, after her death, that Franklin’s data had been crucial in proving their hypothesis.

Franklin was one of the few female chemists in the world at this time, moving from King’s College London to Birkbeck in 1953. She commented that the atmosphere at Birkbeck was friendlier, but the lab conditions were less favourable.


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