I was born in London to a prominent Jewish family. I was always good at science and attended one of the only girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry. In 1938, I entered Newnham College at Cambridge University, where I earned my BA. I received a grant from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to continue my studies, and my focus became the micro-structures of various coals and carbons. I received my PhD in 1945.
After the war, I took a position at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimique de l’Etat in Paris and learned how to analyze carbons using x-ray crystallography, a powerful technique for determining the structure of molecules. Though I was happy in France, I returned to England in 1949 for a fellowship at King’s College, which allowed me to analyze DNA using the x-ray crystallization technique I had become proficient in in Paris. When I began my work, little was known about the chemical make-up or structure of DNA. But, I soon discovered its density and established its helical conformation. I am best known for my work on the x-ray diffraction images of DNA, particularly Photo 51.
In 1956, I was diagnosed with cancer – a result of my extensive exposure to radiation – and I died two years later.