A Rare Biographical Sketch of Rosalind Franklin by Her Mother

July 25, 2017

A Rare Biographical Sketch of Rosalind Franklin by Her Mother

Dying at age 38 is a tragedy for anyone, but it is a double tragedy when that person is potentially a Nobel Prize winner with many more years of productive science ahead of them. When biochemist Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958, only a few years after her work contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA, her mother was distraught not only for the loss of a child but for the international recognition that her daughter had not achieved in life. The result of her grief was this touching autobiographical sketch, Rosalind, published privately a few years later, ostensibly for the much-loved nieces and nephews who would grow up with only dim memories of their aunt.

 The sketch begins with childhood memories and describes the young Rosalind as possessing “a natural efficiency in whatever she was doing... and she could never understand why everyone could not work as methodically, and with equal competence” (p. 3). She was “a busy little girl, full of purposeful energy” whose approach to life was always “logical and exact. Even as a tiny child she could never accept a belief or statement for which no reason or proof could be produced. Particularly this applied to religion. On one occasion cross-examining me on the possibility of the existence of God, and being totally unconvinced by my replies to her searching questions, ‘Well anyhow,’ she triumphantly demanded, ‘how do you know He isn’t a She?’” (pp. 4-5).

Another character trait that followed Franklin into adult life was her tempestuous personality, driven by passion that was “deep and strong and lasting, but she could never be demonstratively affectionate or readily express her deeper feelings in words. This combination of strong feeling, sensibility and emotional reserve, often complicated by an intense concentration on the matter of the moment, whatever it might be, could provoke either a stony silence or a storm” (p. 5). “She was always a little incalculable; a person of moods... and a depth of feeling not always realised by those who did not know or understand her very well” (p. 18).

Muriel goes on to describe Franklin’s school days and interests (she decided very early on that science would be her career), her love of travel and the outdoors, particularly hiking and swimming, and her delight in sewing, fashion, cooking and serving as hostess for her friends and family.

Franklin’s research career is, as to be expected, not covered in depth, but her mother does write that, “The first two years at King’s College were troubled by petty rivalries and jealousies that she felt acutely. Her mind was clear, incisive, and quick thinking, and her methods and conclusion often unconventional and original. Like most pioneers of thought she met opposition, and when, as often happened, she could not persuade colleagues to follow at her pace, she was apt to become impatient and despondent. It was at King’s College that she began her investigations into the nature of nucleic acid and the structures associated with it; here she also developed a new and highly ingenious and complicated technique of taking X-ray photographs of deoxyribonucleic acid that produced remarkable results, and made her reputation in this field” (pp. 16-17).

Muriel Franklin closes with a touching description of her daughter’s fortitude during her long illness, and finally takes comfort in the the fact that, had she lived, she may have received the Nobel Prize and been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Included at the end of the pamphlet is a tribute originally published in Nature by X-ray crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, with whom Franklin had studied viruses in the last years of her life. The pamphlet is illustrated with a wonderful photo of a young and vibrant Franklin on a hiking trip in Norway.

Though it is undated, Franklin mentions the Nobel awarded to Watson and Crick in 1962, and so this pamphlet must have been published between then and her death in 1976. Very few copies were printed, and this is one of the rare survivals. A library catalogue search locates only one other copy, held with the Rosalind Franklin papers at Churchill College, Cambridge.