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Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin's research was instrumental in discovering DNA's double helix.

Michael Grecco Photography/Getty Images

Chemist Rosalind Franklin began her short-lived scientific career studying coal and ended it researching the anatomy of viruses, but her major -- and most controversial -- contribution came while she was trying to decipher the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Although the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine went to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for discovering the DNA double helix structure, they may not have claimed that victory without the aid of Franklin's work [source: NPR].

Born in 1920, Franklin wanted to be a scientist from a young age, but it was considered a male-only occupation at the time. However, her persistence and intelligence won out, and Franklin landed a research assistant position at King's College in London after earning her doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. The King's College laboratory focused on decoding DNA, and Franklin went to work photographing fine strands of it using X-ray diffraction, a technique that creates structural images by bouncing X-rays off molecules.

Tense relations between Franklin and her lab mate, Maurice Wilkins, ultimately allowed Watson and Crick to leap ahead in the DNA race. Without Franklin's knowledge, Wilkins showed the diffraction photos to Watson, providing a crucial clue to unraveling the double helix arrangement. In 1953, Watson and Crick published their landmark DNA paper in the journal Nature, and Franklin never received any recognition for her fateful contribution. In fact, the only DNA praise given to Franklin has come posthumously, since she died of ovarian cancer at age 37.

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