Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Katelyn from Brooklyn, NY. Katelyn Wonders, “Who was Rosalind Franklin?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Katelyn!

Have you ever WONDERed at breakthroughs in science? From Albert Einstein to Marie Curie, the past is full of brilliant minds. Many have made world-changing findings! Today’s Wonder of the Day is about one such brilliant mind—that of Rosalind Franklin!

Who was Rosalind Franklin? She was born on July 25, 1920. Franklin grew up in London, England, in a Jewish family with five children. From an early age, she loved learning about science. Her parents supported this interest. They sent her to St. Paul’s School for Girls, where she also learned to speak French, Italian, and German.

After high school, Franklin entered Newnham College. This was one of two schools for women connected to Cambridge University. There, Franklin studied physical chemistry. 

England entered World War II while Franklin was in college. Many of her professors left to support the war effort. Others were detained due to their German heritage. One professor, Adrienne Weill, came to the college in 1940 as a Jewish refugee from France. Weill became Franklin’s mentor.

During the war, Franklin continued her studies and also became an air raid warden. That means she provided first aid and extinguished fires caused by German bombs. She also reported incidents of bombings to the Air Raid Wardens Service. 

In graduate school, Franklin studied the structure of coal. She was looking for ways to make coal burn more efficiently. However, Franklin’s research helped the world in a way she didn’t expect. It influenced the design of World War II gas masks, whose filters used activated charcoal.

Franklin was the first person to identify micro-structures in coal and other carbons. She completed a dissertation and published five other papers on her research. In 1945, she left Cambridge with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. 

After World War II, Franklin spent a few years working in Paris. In 1949, though, she returned to England. Franklin took a job at London’s King College. There, she began her groundbreaking research into the structure of DNA.

Franklin used x-ray images to better understand DNA. On May 6, 1952, she captured an image that would change what scientists knew about DNA forever. Called Photo 51, it revealed much of DNA’s three-dimensional structure. Linking the photo with her other data, Franklin worked to more fully understand the structure of DNA.

At the same time, two scientists named Francis Crick and James Watson were also studying DNA. In January 1953, one of Franklin’s coworkers showed them Franklin’s unpublished work. Thanks in large part to Photo 51 and Franklin’s data, Crick and Watson published their own model of the structure of DNA. They did not give Franklin credit for her contribution. Crick and Watson later won a Nobel Prize for their work.

Franklin continued her research into DNA. She also studied viruses and the structure of RNA. In fact, Franklin’s work helped pave the way for modern scientists who study viruses, including the one that causes COVID-19.

In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later at the age of 37. Today, she is remembered as one of the most brilliant scientists of her generation.

Standards: CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.L.2, NCAS.A.1, NCAS.A.2, NCAS.A.3

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Join us in Wonderopolis tomorrow for a look at the origins of two of the world’s most popular board games!