Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

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9780060985080: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin's data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery.

Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

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About the Author:

Brenda Maddox is an award-winning biographer whose work has been translated into ten languages. Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, the Silver PEN Award, and the French Prix du Mailleur Livre Etranger. Her life of D. H. Lawrence won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1974, and Yeats's Ghosts, on the married life of W. B. Yeats, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 1998. She has been Home Affairs Editor for the Economist, has served as chairman of the Association of British Science Writers and is a member of the Royal Society's Science and Society Committee. She lives in London and Mid-Wales.

From Scientific American:

The aphorism "history is always written by the victors" is as true for science as for geopolitics. Certainly it was the case for the discovery in 1953 of the double helical structure of DNA, the most important discovery in 20th-century biology. The victors were James Watson and Francis Crick, who together with Maurice Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for crossing the finish line first. The loser was Rosalind Franklin, who produced the x-ray data that most strongly supported the structure but was not properly acknowledged for her contributions. According to Watson's best-selling 1968 account of the great race, The Double Helix, Franklin was not even a contender, much less a major contributor. He painted her as a mere assistant to Wilkins who "had to go or be put in her place" because she had the audacity to think she might be able to work on DNA on her own. Worse yet, she "did not emphasize her feminine qualities," lamented Watson, who refers to her only as "Rosy." "The thought could not be avoided," he concluded, "that the best home for a feminist was in another person's lab." Franklin never had a chance to respond; she died of ovarian cancer in 1958. Her good friend Anne Sayre did offer a rebuttal in Rosalind Franklin and DNA, but that biography is too polemical and pedantic to be either persuasive or a good read. Now, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the double helix, noted British biographer Brenda Maddox has produced a more balanced, nuanced and informed version of the tale. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is neither a paean to Franklin nor a condemnation of her competitors. It's simply the story of a scientist's life as gleaned from extensive correspondence, published and unpublished manuscripts, laboratory notebooks, and interviews with many of the protagonists. It was an interesting life. Franklin, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, was an "alarmingly clever" girl who spent her free time doing arithmetic for pleasure. She was educated at a series of academically rigorous schools culminating in the University of Cambridge, where, despite the fact that women were still excluded from receiving an undergraduate degree, she managed a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and developed the experimental style that was to characterize all her subsequent work-- an approach that was meticulous, albeit sometimes overly cautious. Then it was off to Paris, where she applied the new techniques of x-ray diffraction to the structure of coal. In France, Franklin bloomed both as a scientist, authoring numerous independent publications, and as a young woman free from the constraints of family and stuffy British society. It was a happy and productive period, as were her final years at Birkbeck College in London, where she collaborated with Aaron Klug on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. Alas, the central and most important two years of her career were spent in the far less hospitable environment of the biophysics unit at King's College London. There she immediately locked horns with Wilkins over who would get to study the structure of DNA-- a subject that had been largely ignored during World War II, with its emphasis on more practical matters, but was increasingly regarded as the problem in structural biology. Wilkins, who had been researching the matter for years, had seniority but little insight or good data. It was Franklin, a newcomer to biology, who made the critical observation that DNA exists in two distinct forms, A and B, and produced the sharpest pictures of both. They reached a compromise that Franklin would work on the A form and Wilkins on the B and went their separate ways. Or so Franklin thought. In fact, Wilkins, in a weekend visit to Cambridge, spilled the King's beans to Watson and Crick, who soon thereafter began the model building. Although their approach was less meticulous than Franklin's, it was also far quicker. A few months later it was Watson's turn to visit London, where Wilkins showed him Franklin's startlingly clear x-ray photograph of the B form. On the train back to Cambridge, Watson drew the pattern from memory on the margin of his newspaper. Yet just two months later, in their historic letter to Nature, he and Crick claimed, "We were not aware of the details of the results presented [in accompanying papers from Franklin's and Wilkins's groups] ... when we devised our structure." How did Watson and Crick, with the complicity of Wilkins, get away with so brazenly heisting "Rosy's" data? Maddox offers several theories. The most obvious is Franklin's position as a female researcher at an institution where women were still not allowed to set foot in the senior common room. There was also the matter of anti-Semitism. Franklin's family may have anglicized their name, but her uncle was the first High Commissioner of Palestine, and she was active in Jewish relief groups. She felt isolated, even ostracized, in a school where theology was the largest department and "there were swirling cassocks and dog collars everywhere." We'll probably never know the full story, but Maddox's book shines new light on one of the key characters in the tale of the double helix. Rosalind Franklin may not have had the intuition of some of her competitors, but what she did possess was equally important: integrity.

Dean H. Hamer is a molecular geneticist at the National Cancer Institute. He is author of the upcoming The God Gene and co-author of Living with Our Genes and The Science of Desire.

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