Year 2 Science

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Stories About Scientists: Rosalind Franklin

roslind franklin

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. Like her father, who taught classes about electricity and magnetism, she liked learning about science. She also enjoyed Latin and sports.

Franklin was a pioneering woman scientist. She studied at Newnham College at Cambridge University before women were officially awarded the same degrees that men received. She studied chemistry and, just like you did in the Year 2 book, learned about the atoms and molecules that make up matter. Later, Franklin worked at King's College London in a scientific laboratory. She was the only experienced researcher there who had done experiments on deoxyribonucleic [dee-OX-ee-REE-bow-new-CLAY-ic] acid, or DNA. DNA is found inside plant and animal cells and stores the information that controls how we develop.

Franklin began new experiments to learn about the shape and structure of DNA because no one knew exactly how its atoms are linked or what it looks like. She used X-rays together with a special tube and a magnifying camera to take photographs of short pieces of DNA. Another scientist said that Franklin's pictures were 'amongst the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken'.

Franklin was one of several scientists working separately to discover the shape of DNA. Others were her colleague Maurice Wilkins at King's College London, and James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge. When Watson and Crick visited the labs at King's College London, Wilkins showed them some of Franklin's X-ray photos of DNA.


From her X-ray photos, Franklin found that DNA has the shape of a double-helix that twists around itself like a braid of plaited hair. Watson and Crick used Franklin's photos to make a model of DNA, which they finished a few days after Franklin had made her discovery. They also concluded that DNA has a double-helix shape. Watson and Crick published their findings about DNA in an article in Nature, a scientific journal, in 1953, but their article only hinted that they made their discovery based on studying Franklin's photos. Many people feel that they did not give Franklin the credit she deserved although she was actually the first to discover the shape of DNA. However, at that time, Watson and Crick were credited with the discovery and became famous for it.

In the mid-1950s, Franklin became very ill with cancer, and she died in 1958. Although Franklin, Wilkins, Watson and Crick separately published their very important discoveries of the shape of DNA in 1953, only Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1962 because Nobel Prizes cannot be given to anyone who has died. Although Watson, Crick and Wilkins received most of the credit for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin made key contributions. Over time, her work has been recognised and she is now remembered for her important contributions to the discovery of the shape of DNA.

This activity is adapted from pages 335 - 336 of What Your Year 2 Child Needs to Know, which can be purchased here. Related activities:

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