Battles at Home and Abroad

The year after Rosalind Franklin enrolled at Cambridge, war broke out between Nazi Germany and the British and French. Her time as a college student would be largely shaped by World War II and its aftermath, but she refused to let the hardships of war and other challenges defeat or define her.

Standing Up for Herself and Her Country

Majoring in physical chemistry, Rosalind held herself to a high standard of scholarship throughout her time in college. Still, it was impossible to ignore the war, especially when the German air force began bombing London and other major British cities in 1940. Rosalind volunteered as an air raid warden and steadfastly pursued her education despite the terrors of the Blitz. She withstood pressure from her family to leave Cambridge for safer ground and to take up work that directly aided the war effort. Her work, after completion of her studies, as a physical chemist for the coal industry would do just that.

Cambridge took in a number of academic refugees during the war. One of them was French scientist Adrienne Weill, who came to Newnham in 1940. Rosalind attended a lecture Weill gave on Marie Curie and her admiration grew as they met and became connected through science and politics. This relationship would provide her with a major career break just a few years later.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1941, Rosalind embarked on a graduate research program at Cambridge that was funded by a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. She received this scholarship because of her excellent exam scores.

However, she clashed with her supervising professor, R.G.W. Norrish, after discovering a fundamental error in the project he had assigned her. He refused to accept her findings and demanded she repeat the experiments. She later wrote that Norrish “became most offensive” when “I stood up to him.”

Finding Holes in Coal

Rosalind eventually left Norrish’s graduate research program to continue contributing to the war effort, this time as a researcher with the newly organized British Coal Utilisation Research Association (BCURA).

She spent the next four years examining the properties of various coals and other carbons. More specifically, she tested the changes to permeability of these materials based on heat. Through this work, she eventually uncovered pores in coal that exist at the molecular level. This discovery allowed for the classification of coals and a better understanding of their performance as an energy source.

Rosalind received a PhD from Cambridge in 1945 as a result of her work for the BCURA.

The French Connection

Rosalind earned her PhD around the same time World War II ended. In her search for a position, she reached out to Adrienne Weill, the French scientist she met at Cambridge as an undergraduate. Weill helped her land a position at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris.

This laboratory was home to Jacques Mering, a pioneer in X-ray diffraction. He taught Rosalind how to apply X-ray crystallography to the study of amorphous substances. She used this technique to further study the carbons she knew so well. Over time, her research informed the creation of durable, heat-resistant materials such as carbon fiber, and earned her an international reputation in the field.

Rosalind flourished in France, where she enjoyed the country, the people, the food and the collegiality of her lab. Fluent in French, newly independent and totally committed to her X-ray work, she deftly navigated a post-war world.

As her work in carbons continued to gain notice, she applied for and landed a fellowship at King’s College London. She was torn about leaving her beloved Paris, where she had spent four years. But the move home would open the door to her greatest discovery…