I read Dr. James Watson's "The Double Helix"(1968) years ago. In it, he badly caricatured Dr. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) by systematically stereotyping her. (However, in his book's epilogue he does admit that his initial impressions of her were often wrong.)
I forgot about this until I read the late Dr. Linus Pauling's "How to Live Longer and Feel Better" (1986). In the 'About the Author' section I read the following: "Watson and [Dr. Francis] Crick [both of whom worked in the Cavendish lab at Cambridge University, England] proposed the double-helix structure, which turned out to be correct. Watson and Crick had the advantage of X-ray [diffraction] photographs of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin [who worked in a lab at King's College, a division of the University of London], an advantage denied Pauling [who worked overseas in a U.S. lab]."
Years later I read "Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker" (2001). One science article in this book called "The Triple Helix" said Pauling saw Franklin as "a talented young crystallographer [a scientist who is expert in structure and properties of crystals]" and that he had great admiration for her abilities. It also states that "[Dr. Maurice] Wilkins [the scientist who 'worked with' Franklin at King's College] was not...well trained in [the] interpretation of X-ray photos [like Franklin was]."
Thus, my interest was aroused!! I wanted to learn more about Franklin. I thus chose Anne Sayre's book for two reasons:
(1) It was originally published in 1975, just over 15 years after Franklin's death meaning the memories of events were still relatively fresh in people's minds and key people were still alive. (Contrast this to a book written in 2002, ALMOST 45 YEARS after Franklin's death. Are people's memories still reliable and are all key people still alive?)
(2) Since Sayre was Franklin's friend, she would be privy to information that only friends could share.
Sayre's book has many good features:
(1) ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS SECTION. In it she stated that she interviewed many scientists and/or their wives as well as significant others that were still alive. She also had access to her scientist husband (who was also a crystallographer) as well as Franklin's mother and friends.
I was surprised that Wilkins and Watson both consented "to lengthy and frank interviews." Crick also consented.
Knowing all this quelled my trepidation that this book would somehow be biased and inaccurate.
(2) THE BOOK'S INTRODUCTION (chapter 1). Here she tells us why she wrote this book. It was in response to Watson's caricature of Franklin in his 1968 book. Sayre states, "[She] was not recognizable as Rosalind Franklin. She was recognizable as something else not related to the facts."
Sayre also states that her book is more than just a biography since "biography is too cruel a word to use in connection with a life which was over long before it was finished."
(3) THE BOOK'S CONTENT (chapters 2 to 11). These chapters give a good, detailed description of Franklin. These chapters can be divided into three parts. In these parts the author describes the science Franklin was involved in. Sayre does a good job in making the science understandable. These parts also touch on other things such as science ethics and communication, the nature of science, psychology, and sexism in science. As well, included are copies of Franklin's critical lab notes and transcriptions of interviews with key people.
Part I includes chapters 2 and 3. This part give insight into Franklin's character, her education, significant people she met, and much more. It covers the years from 1920 to 1950.
Part II includes chapters 4 to 9. It covers the years from 1951 to early 1953. These were the years she worked in DNA research.
The major event that transpired during these years was that Wilkins (and others) passed Franklin's data and her X-ray photos of DNA (especially the X-ray photo of the alternative or 'B' form of DNA) to Watson and Crick without her permission, and this critical information enabled them to determine the structure of DNA. (Pauling's structural model was inadequate because, as mentioned, he did not have access to these photos.)
Part III encompasses chapters 10 and 11. It covers the years from mid-1953 to Franklin's death from cancer in 1958. During this time, she worked at a different lab on tobacco virus research and later, on polio virus research.
(4) THE BOOK'S AFTERWORD SECTION. This section discusses various issues vigorously. Some examples of what's discussed include the importance of Franklin's discoveries, what might have been if she had not died so young, how poorly Watson's book portrayed her, and more.
(5) NOTES. There are over ten pages of footnotes at the end of the book. These contain REVEALING information that never made it into the main narrative.
(6) PAULING'S BOOK ENDORSEMENT. This two-time Nobel Prize winner states his endorsement on the book's back cover. I think this speaks volumes for the book's quality!
It's good to know that Rosalind Franklin is now being honored posthumously and her reputation is being restored as part of a government crusade against sexism in science. Also, as of 2002, the "Franklin Medal" is awarded in her honor to exceptional women scientists.
Finally, besides the books mentioned above, I recommend reading "The Third Man of the Double Helix" (November 2003) by Maurice Wilkins to get his side of this story.
In conclusion, if you want to learn about a gifted female scientist and know the true story of the discovery of DNA's structure, then read this fascinating and honest book!!!