Crick and Watson might be the names most readily associated with the twisted ladder that is the DNA helix, but Rosalind Franklin is the unsung heroine of the story.
After obtaining a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge University, she joined King’s College in London in 1951. She got straight to work in the X-ray lab, studying the structure of DNA under high-energy X-ray beams.
Thousands of hours of work later, she heralded a breakthrough moment in science: Franklin, alongside her student Ray Gosling, captured an X-ray image of DNA. Dubbed Photo 51, the iconic shot proved that deoxyribonucleic acid is comprised of two opposing chains.
Franklin left King’s College shortly after and her work was handed over to another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, who showed Photo 51 to James Watson. Watson had been trying to crack the DNA code alongside Francis Crick, and the image finally helped them fill in the blanks. In 1953, the famous duo published a paper on “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in Nature magazine.
A small footnote in Nature acknowledged Franklin for having “stimulated” aspects of the discovery, but when Franklin died she was still unknown outside the scientific community. From the 1980s onwards, however, her work has slowly risen from the forgotten annals of science and come into prominence.