Born in London in 1920 to well-to-do parents, Rosalind attended a private girls’ school in her youth and then went on to Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1941 she was awarded Second Class Honors in her Finals. This was accepted as a bachelor’s degree in the qualifications for employment, since Cambridge did not offer official degrees to women until 1947. Franklin was awarded a research fellowship, but did not do well and left after a year to work at the British Coal Utilization Research Association. Her work there was the basis for her PhD thesis, and she was awarded her PhD in 1945 from Cambridge.
Franklin spent three years in Paris at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de L’Etat where she worked under Jacques Mering and learned the technique of applying X-ray crystallography to amorphous substances. She returned to England in 1951 as a research associate to King’s College, London.
When Franklin came to the lab, she was given responsibility for Maurice Wilkins’ DNA project, since Wilkins was away and no one had worked on it for months. When Wilkins returned, he thought Franklin had been appointed as his assistant, which led to a bad working relationship between the two of them.
“Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Franklin was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of what was probably a helical structure.” (http://www.dnaftb.org/19/bio-3.html)
James Watson and Francis Crick were working to solve DNA’s structure at this same time. Franklin did not know Watson and Crick very well, although Maurice Wilkins did, and had collaborated with them. Reportedly, Wilkins showed Watson and Crick Franklin’s X-ray data which confirmed the structure they had theorized and supposedly led directly to the solution of DNA structure. Both Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins published papers on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue with Watson and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA.
Franklin left Cambridge in 1953 to work at Birkbeck College on the tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus. She died in 1958 of Ovarian cancer.
In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for solving the structure of DNA. Although the debate continues about the amount of credit due to Franklin for contributing to their discovery, the Nobel committee does not give posthumous prizes so she would not have received a Nobel Prize in any case.