Teaching Students About Rosalind Franklin


Rosalind Franklin is an influential figure in the world of science, making groundbreaking discoveries essential to understanding the structures of DNA, RNA, and viruses. Her contributions have significantly impacted our understanding of molecular biology, yet her story has often been overshadowed by other scientists. Teachers must expose their students to the story of Rosalind Franklin, as it will not only deepen their knowledge of scientific history but also inspire them to pursue challenging careers in STEM fields.

Early Life and Education

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on July 25, 1920, in London. At a young age, she developed a keen interest in science and aspired to become a scientist against her family’s wishes. Regardless, she pursued her passion and chose to study chemistry at the University of Cambridge where she earned a bachelor’s degree.

During World War II, Franklin began working on carbon-based research for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. After her service, she received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University for her work on the structure and physical chemistry of coal.

X-ray Crystallography

When considering how to teach students about Rosalind Franklin’s accomplishments, focusing on her research in X-ray crystallography is crucial. She started using this technique as a research associate at King’s College London where she studied DNA fibers.

Her expertise in X-ray diffraction led her to capture an image famously known as Photo 51. This photograph displayed the Helix-X pattern crucial in deciphering the structure of DNA. Although often overlooked, Franklins’s research significantly contributed to James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix structure.

Virus Research

Franklin’s achievements also extended to virus research after joining Birkbeck College’s labs under J.D. Bernal. There, she led a team to study the structure of virus particles using X-ray crystallography. Her work aided in understanding the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus, which had future implications in virology and medical science.

Overcoming Challenges

When teaching about Rosalind Franklin, it’s important to highlight the adversities she faced throughout her career. As a woman in STEM in the early-to-mid 20th century, Franklin experienced both gender discrimination and workplace challenges. Moreover, there was tension between her and other researchers, including Maurice Wilkins who showed her Photo 51 without her permission to Crick and Watson.

Legacy and Impact

After Franklin’s early death due to ovarian cancer at 37, her integral contributions to the understanding of DNA structure, virus shape, and molecular biology have continued to impact scientific community advancements. Through her perseverance, courage, and keen sense for detail she has paved the way for future female scientists as well as breakthroughs in various disciplines.


Teaching students about Rosalind Franklin not only provides a comprehensive view of scientists who have significantly contributed to our understanding of DNA but also aims to inspire students who face challenges in pursuing their dreams. By sharing her story, teachers create an atmosphere that emphasizes determination, passion for knowledge, and resilience – crucial qualities for any individual regardless of their field.

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