"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. A photograph she took, entitled simply number 51, was shown without her knowledge together with other information that made the announcements of Watson and Crick possible long before they otherwise would have been possible to proclaim.
Rosalind Franklin was to die at age 37, and 4 short years later Nobel Prizes were given out to those that benefited directly and substantially from her work. The better part of half a century has passed, and despite the naming of buildings, science research facilities, and attempts to revise the historical record to give this amazing woman her due, it will never be enough.
Brenda Maddox has written an important work for everyone as she is helping to document a historical record that was deeply flawed, and now slowly is being corrected. This book is important to so many for the same reason the name Watson and Crick are so important. Rosalind Franklin was one of the keys to the discovery of DNA, her work made Watson and Crick's announcements possible, and History should be taught correctly. Students today should know the most accurate version of what took place, not simply what has become generally accepted wisdom
Equally important is why her work was shared unethically, without her knowledge, and why such behavior was tolerated. This book goes a long way toward exposing these valid questions and why it is so important the record be accurate.
There is no way to know whether Rosalind Franklin would have been given The Nobel Prize along with Watson and Crick had she lived. The number of women honored by that society is absurdly small, and again the author demonstrates not only how many amazing women have been excluded, but how many men you would expect to see rewarded were passed over for names that will surprise you. The examples given cover literature, and the honorees and those ignored will amaze you.
One fact is certain, The Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, and unless that were ever to change any persons who may have been deserving will never be recognized. Maybe it is enough that the historical record is being corrected, for even if it is not, certain manners of honoring historic contributions to science will always be closed to Rosalind Franklin and that is simply unjust.
'Crick and Watson' are names drilled into my brain as the discoverers of the DNA double helix. I didn't know until I read this book that there should have been a third name which I automatically associated with the structure of DNA - Rosalind Franklyn.
Brenda Maddox has written, in some ways, a sadly familiar tale. We like to think that 'science' is Noble, Pure and Of High Ideals - the great god science may indeed be NP + OHI - however, scientists being mortal men and women (and more often than not, mortal men) are as subject to self-serving, naked ambition, power hungry greed as the rest of us.
There's a rush to get your name on the paper, to get the citations - and the desire for this is not just 'this discovery is for the good of all', but its good for ME.
The cut and thrust world of scientific fame and glory is particularly difficult, even now, for women.
Maddox uncovers a warts and all portrait of the difficult, often unlikeable, brilliant Franklyn. Undoubtedly she lacked charm, she lacked the ability to schmooze, she lacked a graceful character (women of course are particularly 'supposed' to be charming, graceful and likeable) The naked ambition which was palpable (and par for the course) in her male colleagues is seen as unacceptable in a woman.
This book is a fascinating - and to a feminist -'keep those flames of feminism burning' - book. Maddox writes extremely well about the fascinating scientific journey of discovery, and about the dirty politics. She doesn't turn Franklyn into a latter day saint - but it is also clear that whatever her defects of character, being a brilliant woman, a brilliant Jewish woman, in a boys' club, would never be an easy ride.
And..............if you feel tempted to think, but that was a long long time ago, read a more recent account of the alpha male wolf pack atmosphere of big business, nobel prize winning glory prize science in Candace Pert's Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel One edition of this latter book, due to the often buggy method of listing foreword writers as well as authors, even has this book, written by a female scientist, as being credited to the foreword writer - so the author is given as Deepak Chopra. A amusing mistake unintentionally illustrating 'the back room girls do the work, the boys elbow their way into the spotlight of fame!'
Quite why Nobel Prize winner James D Watson, in his 1968 best seller "The Double Helix", chose to portray Rosalind Franklin as a second rate scientist and a thoroughly unpleasant woman is anybody's guess. Barbara Maddox's biography does nothing to solve the mystery, since, as she demonstrates, the two scientists appear to have been on good terms, personally and professionally, in the years following the discovery of the structure of DNA.
"The Dark Lady of DNA" sets out to uncover the truth about Rosalind Franklin and the result is a well researched and highly readable account of her life from her birth into a well-heeled and well-connected family to her untimely death in 1958.
The woman who emerges from the darkness is a first class scientist with a rich personal life. Although she is best known for her work on DNA, she did important and far reaching research on the structure of coal and, having moved into biochemistry, the structure of viruses. As a person, Franklin was certainly not perfect: she could be prickly and argumentative, but many knew her as a thoughtful, generous and loyal friend.
This is an excellent biography. Maddox has done a good job of explaining the science and its importance to a general readership and has drawn a balanced portrait of this able and complex woman whose posthumous fame is well deserved.
on 10 October 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.
on 5 October 2011
This is a well written book that gives us a more insightful understanding into the life of Rosalind Franklin. Her contribution is vastly overlooked and this book explains why. Interesting anecdotes and lovely photographs.
on 11 December 2010
This is an excellent book, both insightful and a damned good read. There is so much baggage around Franklin, none of her own making, and this book tries to strip this away and paint a picture of Franklin the person and the scientist. Franklin the person was prickly, snobbish - and perfectly human! As a scientist, I think her most important work was on X-ray crystallography of viruses; I've always felt her role in the DNA story was exaggerated by Watson in his book, in order to make Watson himself seem clever - back in the dawn of time when I was a first year Biochemistry student, my lecturer described the DNA story as "Crick did the work and Watson wrote the book". One of the nicest things I found out from this book was how close she became to Francis Crick, who is described as one of her favourite scientists; not something you'd expect from Watson's silly book.
And on that topic, how about a biography of Crick, Ms. Maddox?
on 4 November 2003
Many of the key players in the exciting discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA have been rightly rewarded by enhanced reputations and, in the case of James D. Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1962. Not so for the sole female contributor, Rosalind Franklin, her life has been subjected to caricature and only in rather recent years has her significant scientific contributions been publicly recognized. The ire of many a feminist is particularly directed at James D. Watson, the author of the 1968 best seller “The Double Helix”, in which, Watson paints the then deceased Franklin as a virago figure. In contrast to Watson’s personal memoir, British author Brenda Maddox, in her recent biography, has done much to lay out a very human portrait of Franklin as well as provide a balanced account of her prodigious scientific accomplishments. Maddox covers her subject’s whole life, not just the critical but brief DNA years and thoroughly succeeds in generating an admirable Rosalind (as she is sensitively referred to throughout, in contrast to others who are referred to by surnames). Maddox is an accomplished biographer with several awards to her credit including the Whitbead Biography award for her life of D. H. Lawrence. Her skillful techniques are well honed and through Maddox’s lens the reader cannot help but view Rosalind as a warm though strong-willed, precociously intelligent and, on account of her untimely death at only thirty seven, ultimately a tragic figure.
Franklin was fortunate to be born into a well-heeled banker’s family that allowed her to secure a rigorous education in the physical sciences at the private St. Paul’s Girl’s School in London. Maddox does a splendid job of bringing Franklin’s girlhood alive and the extract from Franklin’s diary describing the awe and unadulterated fun surrounding the coronation ceremonies for King George VI are marvelous. Franklin loved sports but was a committed scholar as well and graduated with an award for outstanding performance, especially in physics, that allowed her to enter Cambridge University as an undergraduate on the eve of World War II. Her family’s wealth provided the educational opportunity but Franklin provided the rare combination of uninhibited drive, focus, powerful intellect and hard work. As Britain and her Commonwealth stood alone against Hitler, Franklin showed the same steadfastness of purpose by her unswerving commitment to her studies. Once again, Franklin shows her uniqueness, since there were many belles (and a few beaus, I would imagine) at the university who enjoyed the social whirl that existed in spite of the war. While at Cambridge, Franklin met a fellow physicist, Adrienne Weill, a dynamic Frenchwoman that fascinated and greatly influenced Franklin. This relationship was the first step in Franklin’s transition to passionate francophile which ultimately soured her relationship with her own country and spoiled her interactions with her British colleagues. In the meantime, Franklin completed her Ph.D. in physical chemistry with a specialty in applying X-ray structural analysis to amorphous coal and proceeded to publish her first publications in prestigious scientific journals. Franklin’s life was not work since she had a penchant for strenuous holidays in the outdoors usually involving climbing and hiking which she maintained throughout her life. The French connection ultimately led to a job offer in Paris, which Franklin embraced with enthusiasm. Although she remained totally committed to her work, she mastered French, conquered high mountains, developed fine dress taste and was exposed to the Parisian post-war political ferment. This was not to last, and in 1950 she returned to London to what would prove to be professionally productive but personally an unhappy time. This constituted her leap into DNA at King’s College London.
Franklin’s accepted a research fellowship to work at the Biophysics unit, King’s College London, headed by the famous physicist, J. T. Randall, responsible for the British discovery and development of radar during World War II. She was to work with Randall’s deputy, Maurice Wilkins, on studies he already had underway involving DNA. By all accounts, except Franklin’s, Wilkins seemed to be an excellent collaborator and had productive and amiable relationships with colleagues and students in his decades-long scientific career. Franklin came to King’s with a craving for foreign friends and what can only be thought of as a “chip on her shoulder”. She was described as “tense and unbending, clutching her aversion to everything English” and ultimately this led to her having a poor relationship with several of her colleagues. In particular, she considered Wilkins her inferior. Nonetheless, interpersonal squabbles aside, Franklin was a professional scientist of the highest quality and she quickly made her mark in her new laboratory and generated X-ray pictures of DNA that were second to none.
The steps along the way to the discovery of the structure of DNA have been laid out before, notably by Watson in his 1968 best seller and also in commentaries and rebuttals to his biased account. The key facts run as follows, Watson and Crick at Cambridge University utilized model building as a tool to visualize several hypothesized structures of DNA. In large part, these tinker-toy-like models were speculative and relied on laboratory data generated by others as well as competing models proposed by academic competitors, notably the renowned chemist, Linus Pauling, in the US. In Franklin’s thinking, model building was not given much weight and she focused, to the exclusion of almost all else, on X-ray methods and data analysis as the true road to deciphering the structure of DNA. As it turned out, Franklin’s experimental data was instrumental in inspiring the Watson and Crick model of DNA and in recent years the importance of her contribution has gained increased credence. Unfortunately, Franklin’s productive life was cut short by cancer and she died aged thirty-seven of cancer. Although not fully reconciled in life, the Franklin-Wilkins building at King’s College London was opened in 2000, and stands as a testament to their joint contribution to one of the last century’s greatest scientific advances.
on 6 July 2003
A really very good and interesting book. Does it redress the balance? I think not. How can a book written 50 years after the discovery by a non-participant be more reliable in its descriptions of the events, than one written 15 years afterwards by one of the main discoverers [J. Watson 'The Double Helix']. There are literally 100's of similar arguments in science especially about precedence and many books written. But sad though it seems that Rosalind was ill treated, nothing written in this book contradicts that in the first part of her working life she was awkward, did not right from the start co-operate with her own boss and was unlikely to share in open, honest discussion her ideas and discoveries. Watson & Crick meanwhile were quite happy to welcome her and Wilkins [her boss]to see their model as it progressed. The great insight Watson had on seeing her X-Ray photo could equally have applied to Franklin if she had continued to visit W & C's workplace and viewed their evolving model. Other scientists also contributed greatly and in one case crucially to the discovery of DNA's structure(the enol/keto form for example).
So Watson & Crick never did a single experiment and made the discovery - would Franklin or indeed Pauling have done so without ALL the pieces of evidence? Probally not. But Pauling would have had more chance because he was part of a team.
Franklin worked alone, there was no synergy or alternative ideas.
The book is very honest and fair showing her warts and all. It appears to give a complete decription of her life and her earlier work in Paris on carbon structure. At the end you cannot help but like her but perhaps her cause has been hi-jacked by the feminist movement? I recommend it to all who are interested in the life and times of scientists.
on 8 January 2015
If you want to read a biography of Rosalind Franklin you have a choice between two separate efforts: "Rosalind Franklin and DNA" by Anne Sayre (1975) or "The Dark lady of DNA" by Brenda Maddox (2002). By the author's own admission, Sayre's book is not really a biography but a protest to Watson's own book. What Maddox offers here is a much more balanced view, even if at times I had the impression she was somewhat partial towards Franklin and a bit derisive about Watson. This might be entirely justified though, because according to most people who have known her personally, the portrait of Franklin that was painted by Watson in "The Double Helix" was a caricature.
Since the publication of "The Dark Lady of DNA" we have a much better appreciation of who Rosalind Franklin was, both as a person and as a scientist. This book covers Franklin's entire life and is extremely well researched. This effort was motivated by a desire to rectify the false impression many people had about Franklin after reading "The Double Helix". That is why Maddox is very critical of Watson throughout the book. The only time she took his side was when she mentioned a personal anecdote about the nickname Rosie: "This diminutive is not as inherently insulting as many critics of Watson's 'Rosy' in "The Double Helix" have suggested. When I first arrived in England from Massachusetts, I shared a flat with an Anglo-Irish Reuters journalist named Rosanna Groarke, and routinely addressed her, although no one else did, as 'Rosie'. It seemed a sign of American friendliness."
After reading this book I had a much better understanding of the role played by Franklin in the discovery of the DNA structure. But a few issues remain opaque. For example, it is still not clear for me what was Franklin's position at any given time towards the possibility of a double helix structure for the DNA molecule. For instance she made a lot of fuss around her conviction that the A form was not a double helix. She even wrote a mocking death notice to that effect. But Crick and Watson thought it was a double helix and they were right. For technical reasons she more readily recognized that the B form should be a double helix. But we don't know when exactly she came to that conclusion, and what impact it had on her comprehension of the A form. Perhaps we don't have enough material at our disposal to be able to follow Franklin closely in the evolution of her thinking. In that respect it was a lot easier to follow Watson's account in "The Double Helix". On the other hand what Maddox did make very clear is how cautious Franklin was in her scientific investigations. She proceeded step by step and was very methodical. This approach is less risky but takes longer. While Watson and Crick were often careless she may herself have been too careful at times. However, these two opposite approaches are essential to the evolution of science, for they represent complementary attitudes that can both yield good results. And the elucidation of the DNA structure illustrates that particularly well. It is generally acknowledged that Crick and Watson relied heavily on the data meticulously collected by Franklin. And this allowed them to ground their intuitions and deductions on experimental evidences. In science we often see experimentalists working hand in hand with theoreticians. However, in this particular case vital informations were obtained by Crick and Watson without the consent and knowledge of Franklin. This may partially explain why it took so long to recognize the value of her contribution.
What we find in this biography is a much more elaborate and sophisticated portrait of Franklin than can be found in "The Double Helix". What we come to realize is that the comments made by Watson in his "myth making narrative" reflects only a short segment of her life. This sad episode was very painful to her at the time and the whole situation became unbearable after a while. She must have learned a great deal from that experience and it probably made her mature more rapidly. Although she did not have very long to live she entered the most productive period of her career after her departure from King's. For the context in which she was now evolving was very different once she had left behind the poisonous atmosphere prevailing at her previous institution. And this new life offered her the opportunity to better demonstrate the full extent of her scientific abilities. Everything becomes clear after we learn that when Franklin was hired to work on DNA she was under the impression that this new field of investigation would be entirely hers. But she met stiff resistance from Maurice Wilkins who had been told more or less the same in regards to his own posture. The immediate consequence was that cooperation ceased before it had even started. The situation rapidly deteriorated and turned into an unproductive turf war. Instead of cooperating with each other they ended up cooperating with Crick and Watson, with whom they were unknowingly competing. The odd couple Wilkins/Franklin failed to appreciate how determined the dynamic duo Crick/Watson was to solve the same problem they were working on.
The bizarre circonstances prevailing at the time brought the worst out of Franklin. It mainly showed her darker side instead of displaying her brilliance, which had already been recognized abroad when she did post doctoral work in France. But thanks to the painstaking research carried out by Brenda Maddox, the Dark Lady of DNA can now rest in peace, knowing that her light now shines brighter than ever.
on 7 August 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. Maddox has an agenda, but she is remarkably skillful at arranging the facts to lead up to what is a rather compelling literary climax at the end of the biography. She litters the biography with facts that make her ending damning conclusions about Watson a slam dunk.
My only complaint was that sometimes I felt Maddox worked a bit TOO hard to debunk mean-spirited previously made comments about Rosalind being dowdy and plain. I really didn't feel that it was necessary to point out what Rosalind's wardrobe was in so many different instances. Indeed, the balance between the actual science and Rosalind's wardrobe sometimes seemed equally weighted. Really?
So, Rosalind was focused, brilliant, driven, at times perhaps realistically paranoid about other male scientists and their inappropriate scientific intentions, sometimes irritable, fiercely loyal, ambitious, sometimes helped by men, sometimes stymied by men, and very importantly, working in an area that few women worked and where few outside of that area understood what she actually did. It comes as no particular surprise to me that such a woman might, in her relentless drive and focus, might have other areas of her psychology somewhat underdeveloped (e.g., relationships with men). Fair enough. You can't be everything all of the time. But, that's my take on Rosalind after reading the book, and that's the greatness of this book - it presents many facts about Rosalind, quietly and subtly suggests interpretations, but primarily leaves it to the reader to draw their own interpretations about Rosalind (but not about Watson, who it is very clear Maddox is not at all impressed with).
A very good book.