April 25th is International DNA Day, commemorating the day that papers by James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and their colleagues on the structure of DNA were published in Nature.
Here at Ovarian Cancer Action, we support the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre at Imperial College London. Without the understanding of DNA, there would not be the research into ovarian cancer that we have today. For example, our knowledge of the BRCA gene mutation and its link to cancer – we would be completely in the dark about it.
But did you know one of those authors who played a major role in the understanding of the molecular structure of DNA was affected by ovarian cancer? Rosalind Franklin was a chemist and X-ray crystallographer doing research in London. What is less well known is that she died at the age of 37 of ovarian cancer.
It was Dr Franklin’s Photograph 51 – an X-ray diffraction image which revealed the characteristic DNA double helix - that confirmed Crick and Watson’s double helix model of DNA. And they saw it without her knowledge! This major contribution was never publicly recognized in her time as Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously.
We now understand the structure of DNA, and Dr Franklin’s work was an early contributor to that. Understanding the structure of DNA is the key to understanding how genetic information is copied – and this is the basis for many research fields, including, of course, cancer research.
Dr Franklin was a scientist when, quite frankly, it was a difficult time to be a female scientist. And for her to succeed in that time, not only with regards to DNA but with her research on coal and viruses – she is an inspiration to us.