“As a scientist, Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”
— J.D. Bernal
Professor, Birkbeck University, London.
Mentor to Franklin during the Photo 51 era
Perhaps one of the most influential icons of 20th century science, Rosalind Franklin was born the second oldest in a quiet suburb of London on July 20th, 1920 to a family of seven (Maddox, 2002). Even in youth Franklin exhibited quick and sharp intellect, and an even sharper tongue.
During childhood through adolescence, Franklin could be summed up in a letter by Mamie Bentwich, her father’s sister, “Rosalind is alarmingly clever – She spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure, & invariably gets her sums right.”³
Often sent to schools away from home, Franklin was diligent in writing letters in her absence. This trait would follow her through to her professional career. Many early letters started with the opening, “Dear Mummy and Daddy”, and would change with age.
A misconception often heard about Franklin’s youth is that her father, Ellis Franklin, forbid education. This, in time, has been debunked.
As stated by Franklin’s sister Jennifer Glynn, both Ellis and Muriel Franklin, “… were delighted to have intelligent children of either sex, sent us all to academic schools, expected us all to go to university, and were well used to intelligent women in the family.” (Glynn, 2012).
Indeed, Ellis Franklin was on track to study science himself before the break out of World War I. After release from service, Franklin married and accepted a position at a local bank where his father was senior partner³. This derailed him from a career in science, but did not stop him from teaching at the local Working Mens College in his off-time. Ellis Franklin regarded his military career in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry with pride; it was a turning and defining point in his life.
Franklin attended St. Paul’s School for Girls, often receiving top marks in mathematics and science. She filled her time with writing home, studying, and sports, having a particular interest in hockey.
The Franklin family filled their early years with holidays to places far away from London such as Norway. This would fuel Franklin’s love for walking and hiking – she was an active traveler as long as her body and schedule would allow³.
By the time Rosalind Franklin was looking to University, she was consistently at the top of her class. 5 months before her 18th birthday, Franklin tested with top scores into Cambridge University. She would go on to attend in the fall of 1938.
The era of 1930-1940 showed that antisemitic sentiments had grown in volume and number. The rise of Adolf Hitler to power in the late 1930’s would forever be linked to the oppression and genocide of mainly Jewish, but also LGBTQIA, Romani, and disabled persons.
Rising antisemitism in Europe did affect Franklin on a public level – often Franklin would volunteer in Cambridge during the London Blitz (1940-41 or so) as a ‘fire watcher’- a lookout for any falling incendiaries. According to Glynn, she was indifferent about Jewish charities until the rise of Hitler’s regime.
Glynn expands on her sister’s unique brand of faith.
“Rosalind’s Jewishness is not easy to define. She was not in any way religious, but Judaism is broader than that, and she always thought of herself as a Jew…. None of us were ever aware of anti-Semitism in our own lives, never felt we were outsiders with any obstacles to our jobs or careers.”²
During the early years of Hitlers’ rise to power, Jewish refugees flooded out of Nazi-controlled Europe to neutral or Allied nations. Entrance into Britain for middle-class Jewish families required permits. In this, Ellis and Muriel Franklin threw themselves. Mamie, Ellis’ sister also joined in with them to help build schools for refugee children, Jewish or otherwise³. The Franklin’s took in two refugee children.
Cambridge offered two women’s colleges by the time Franklin enrolled, Newnham and Girton, and were not fully integrated into the University by that time². Enrollment was limited to 550 women.
During this time, Rosalind’s scope on the world and horizons would be expanded. Though participating in the College’s traditional entertainment such as end of quarter performances was not her first decision, but it was a small price to pay to be at Cambridge. This was a transition time for Rosalind, as it is for most first year students away from home.
Glynn writes,”her very full and frequent letters show her gradually maturing form her schoolgirl outlook, when she tended to echo her parents’ beliefs (except in religion, which she had already firmly rejected), to her own outspoken left-wing independence.”²
While at Cambridge, Rosalind became more and more in tune with the political change in the war. Her three brothers went on to serve in British military forces, but Rosalind decided to stay in Cambridge and complete her degree. Though this was seen as a ‘soft’ option by Ellis Franklin, Rosalind argued that she would contribute more with her degree than by dropping. In this, she was backed by Muriel and aunt Mamie.
In letters home, she would bemoan those who wouldn’t take action in war efforts, according to Maddox. She was vehemently against those who pushed pacifism during a time of oppressive war, and settled politically somewhere in the socialist area. During this time, she would debate hotly in letters with Ellis on Britain’s behavior during the war.
During her second year at Cambridge, Franklin would expand her knowledge base by attending lectures, shifting studying habits and in general soaking in the academic environment. She took the time to attend a meeting of the Association of Scientific Workers, whose president, Lawrence Bragg, had earned a Nobel Prize for his work with X-ray crystallography alongside his father.
X-ray crystallography is a method of measuring atomic structure and spacing within a compound using X-rays.
Work in the early 1900’s by a man named Max von Laue proved that when light or X-ray was shown through a crystal, it would leave a diffracting pattern on photo-sensitive paper¹.
This allowed L. Bragg and his father to calculate in equation relating distance of atoms or atomic sheets in a crystal to X-ray diffraction. This would win both father and son the joint Nobel Prize in physics in 1915.
This would be the stepping off point for Franklin’s career. According to Maddox,
“Rosalind was eager for such knowledge and technique (which would form the bases for her entire body of professional work). As an undergraduate she new she was beginning at the beginning. In her new notebook which she headed ‘Mineralogy’, she wrote at the top of the first page, ‘What is a crystal?‘.”
While Franklin delved deeper into crystallography, the world delved deeper into what was shaping up to be a global war. This would prove to have an influence on women at Cambridge. According to Maddox, in 1938 Cambridge was home to 5,491 men and 513 women. By 1940, the numbers had shifted to 2,908 men and 497 women.
Nazi forces were pushing closer and closer to England through 1940. In June, Allied and British forces evacuated from Dunkirk, and Churchill gave his famous “We will fight on the beaches..” speech. While Churchill broadcasted the fall of France, Franklin was home on break in London helping with refugee work.
In the event that Cambridge were to close, Franklin ventured that she could find work as a chemist. It was in her view that she would be awful at anything but science. This was not to Ellis Franklin’s preference, citing that she was interested in nothing but science. He, almost correctly, stated that science was Rosalind’s religion. Rosalind wrote back:
“You frequently state… that I have developed a completely one-sided outlook and look at everything and think of everything in terms of science. Obviously my method of thought and reasoning is influenced by a scientific training – if that were not so my scientific training will have been a waste and a failure. But you look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated…”
She writes on: “I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort) but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing your best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining.” (Maddox).
These sentiments were not new to Ellis or Muriel Franklin, as Rosalind had rejected any inkling of a ‘God’ in her early youth. But again, according to Glynn, Rosalind still identified as part of the Jewish community without necessarily practicing faith. Maddox writes, “If Jewishness is understood to mean unswerving loyalty to family, a belief in the importance of knowledge, especially in science and medicine, and the virtue of hard work – even over-work, Rosalind remained true to her tradition.”³
Franklin began her 3rd year at Cambridge as the Nazi regime began their Blitz, an effort that would result in the deaths of 1500 Londoners. When an incendiary had landed too close to 5 Pembridge Place, the Franklins decided it was time to move and headed to Hertfordshire.
Franklin began in October, and Cambridge was no longer isolated from the War outside. Many had switched to war research. It was during this year that she would meet a key figure in her life: Adrienne Weill, a French-Jewish scientist who escaped France with her daughter (she was previously widowed) to join De Gaulle in his rally to England. Weill was a successful scientist, working with Mme. Marie Curie before having to flee.
For Franklin, Weill’s elegance and sophistication in science and social issues was impressive. The two had an unlikely connection through Franklin’s Uncle Herbert (Louis Samuel) and Weill’s mother, Suzanne Braunschweig, a philosopher.
According to Glynn, Weill was a good role model for Franklin. Being a successful single mother and scientist showed to Franklin that motherhood and science were, “not incompatible”. Weill’s French background also helped Rosalind with her French conversation, which would help her in the years after Cambridge.
As 1941 began, Franklin was concerned with final exams and research grants as the Blitz grew with intensity. She entered her finals nursing a bad cold and going on no sleep. She misjudged her timing, and left exams feeling defeated. Despite this, Franklin scored high on her marks considering she had only three years under belt. In private, she was informed that she had scored in the top percentage for her physical chemistry exam³.
She earned a college scholarship of £15 to remain another year and research.
Maddox writes of Franklin’s time at Cambridge, “It changed her life. It gave her a profession and a personal philosophy. It enabled her to distance herself from her parents and become the mature adult with a sharp political and social conscience. That she achieved this amidst the self-doubt, the confrontations to which she was prone, and the terrors of war in the years when Britain stood alone is a measure of her inner steel.”³
- Glynn, J. My sister Rosalind Franklin. 1st ed., Oxford University Press Inc., New York. 2012
- “Lawrence Bragg – Facts”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 26 Feb 2018. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1915/wl-bragg-facts.html>
- Maddox, B. Rosalind Franklin the dark lady of DNA. 1st ed., HarperCollins, New York. 2002.
- Ronald George Wreyford Norrish (1897-1978) Emmanuel College: History and Archives. http://www.emma.cam.ac.uk/about/history/famous//index.cfm?id=12