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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA [Hardcover]

Brenda Maddox
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct 2002

The untold story of the woman who helped to make one of humanity’s greatest discoveries – DNA – but who was never given credit for doing so.

'Our dark lady is leaving us next week'; on 7 March 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London, wrote to Francis Crick at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge to say that as soon as his obstructive female colleague was gone from King's, he, Crick, and James Watson, a young American working with Crick, could go full speed ahead with solving the structure of the DNA molecule that lies in every gene. Not long after, the pair whose names will be forever linked announced to the world that they had discovered the secret of life.
But could Crick and Watson have done it without the 'dark lady'? In two years at King's, Franklin had made major contributions to the understanding of DNA. She established its existence in two forms, she worked out the position of the phosphorous atoms in its backbone. Most crucially, using X-ray techniques which may have contributed significantly to her later death from cancer at the tragically young age of 37, she had taken beautiful photographs of the patterns of DNA.
This is the extraordinarily powerful story of Rosalind Franklin, told by one of our greatest biographers; the single-minded young scientist whose contribution to arguably the most significant discovery of all time went unrecognized, elbowed aside in the rush for glory, and who died too young to recover her claim to some of that reputation, a woman who was not the wife of anybody and who is a myth in the making. Like a medieval saint, Franklin looms larger as she recedes in time. She has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology. This will be a full and balanced biography, that will examine Franklin's abruptness and tempestuousness, her loneliness and her relationships, the powerful family from which she sprang and the uniqueness of the work in which she was engaged. It is a vivid portrait, in sum, of a gifted young woman drawn against a background of women's education, Anglo-Jewry and the greatest scientific discovery of the century.

--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; 1 edition (Oct 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060184078
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060184070
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,934,607 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA is the "untold" story of the scientist whose work was paramount in the discovery of the double helix. In 1953 scientist Francis Crick famously burst through the doors of a Cambridge pub to announce that he and his colleague James Watson had discovered the secret of life. He and Watson really had discovered something extraordinary--the structure of DNA. Nine years later the two of them, together with Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The ghost at the Nobel feast in 1962 was Rosalind Franklin, who had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 four years earlier. Franklin was an exceptionally gifted scientist whose work had been central to the unravelling of the problem of the structure of DNA. Without it the insights of Crick and Watson would not have been possible.

In recent years Rosalind Franklin has become a kind of feminist icon, "the Sylvia Plath of science", as one commentator has called her. The manifest unfairness of her exclusion from the glory attached to what may be the most important scientific discovery of the second half of the 20th century was underlined by the bitchy and misogynist portrait of her in Watson's bestselling book The Double Helix. Brenda Maddox, in her biography, attempts to present a balanced portrait of Franklin and of the assorted giant male egos with whom she came into contact. She acknowledges that Franklin was a spiky personality who not only did not suffer fools gladly but did not suffer them at all. She also emphasises her capacity for friendship, her tangled relationships with her multi-talented and demanding family, her joy in travel and the range of the scientific work she accomplished in her short life. After this biography it will no longer be possible to confine Rosalind Franklin's complex personality within either the straitjackets of Watson's condescension or feminist idolatry. --Nick Rennison --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.


' ...Maddox is a dab hand at drawing a heroine out from behind the long shadows cast by men ' -- Daily Telegraph

' ...a moving and powerful account of the all-too-short life of a remarkable woman of science ' -- Radio Four's Book of the Week

'A joy to read' -- The Observer

'absorbing...pleasurable in its maturity of persepective' -- Sunday Telegraph --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
THE FAMILY into which Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on 25 July 1920, stood high in Anglo-Jewry. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nobel Prizes Are Not Given Posthumously 8 Jan 2003
By taking a rest HALL OF FAME
"Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady Of DNA", is a biography, and is not so laden with science that the lay-person cannot read and enjoy the work. But I did read, and will comment, as a lay-reader who is fascinated by the people and the methods they used to uncover one of the great discoveries in the History of Science.
I found this book recommended in The Scientific American magazine. Despite its reputation for being for the trained scientist, or very well studied amateur, the magazine routinely suggests very approachable books for the inquisitive reader. The biography is very readable, and when science becomes integral to the story, the explanations offered together with the diagrams, make the science accessible to the lay-reader. The discussion of DNA is limited to the parts that were to play such a controversial role in who was given credit, received Nobel Prizes, or in this book, the woman, Rosalind Franklin, who was pushed aside. The reasons she was kept from the honors and recognition she deserved are many, and the book covers them in great detail, but as strong a reason as any was the fact she was a pioneer as a female in what was then, virtually an entirely all men's discipline. She also became terminally ill just as the papers and announcements regarding the discoveries of the famed double-helix were being published, and this made her marginalization all that much easier.
The names Watson and Crick are synonymous with the discovery of the double helix of DNA. What is less well known is that their discovery happened when it did, not only because of their work, but the absolutely critical and essential work done by Rosalind Franklin.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars DNA'S Dark lady 10 Oct 2002
This a book for anyone who has an interest in women in history or general science. It shows the human side of a story that has had scientists and feminists debating since the award of the Nobel prize to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for the discovery of the DNA strand. Was Rosalind Franklin robbed by not only those around her but because she was a brilliant woman ahead of her time. Or did her uncompromising nature and standards make collaboration hard? There is just enough science in this book to explain how important the discovery was but mostly, it is a beautifully written account of the woman herself. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and even now find myself reading the odd chapter. I highly reccommend it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Shining light on the "dark side" 7 Aug 2012
I'm not usually a fan of biographies. As an academic (and a female) I read enough non-fiction/science in a week to last me for some years to come. My voluntary reading is usually intended to help me escape into other worlds and dreams. So, it was with trepidation that I started this book, a birthday gift from friends. What a gift! I couldn't put it down.

I was only vaguely familiar with Rosalind Franklin, and that was a shame. Maddox's impeccably researched book shines light onto a remarkable, if complex, individual. Maddox places Franklin in context; the context of her upbringing, her financial status, her religious roots, her family, her country, her gender, and the place of women in science during the 1950s - across the UK, Europe, and the U.S. It is a fascinating set of circumstances. At times I felt as if Maddox held a camera, Franklin stood in the centre, and Maddox ran around her, filming her from different vantage points, then running back to a point she'd just been at, and filming her again. The result is like the story of the blind men and the elephant, except in this instance, we get to hear the report of every blind man and so we are in a position to weave together all of their reports about what the "elephant" (in this case Rosalind) was. And who and what she was was remarkable. She straddled many different worlds and cultures. Although she did not always do so gracefully, she did so in order to pursue her intellectual curiosity and impeccable scientific standards. I am humbled by what she managed to pursue in her short life. It is breath-taking, even more so because it was so difficult for a woman to do at that time (and even now, sadly).

Although Rosalind has been a cause de celebre for feminists, Maddox is careful to keep her own opinions in check.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Rosalind Franklin Reappraised 21 May 2012
By Brian P
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Rosalind Franklin became more widely known after Jim Watson published his famous account of the discovery of DNA - "The Double Helix". Watson's account of his relationship with, and the contribution of, Rosalind Franklin distorted the character of a complex woman and under-rated the contribution she made to Crick & Watson's elucidation of the helical structure of DNA. Since her death, feminists have promoted her career in much the same way as they did for Sylvia Plath, but the case for correcting an inaccurate portrayal of Rosalind Frankin's life and scientific contribution was always more solid.

Brenda Maddox has written an admirable and readable biography which both corrects Watson's distortions while giving an intelligible and lucid account of the science behind the Crick-Watson-Franklin (for so it should read) breakthrough leading to the discovery of "the secret of life". This, together with Rosalind Franklin's more comprehensive achievements are best summarised in the obituaries (reproduced in this biography) published in "The Times" and "Nature" by the eminent crystalographer Prof. J.D. Bernal.
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