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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Maddox's Rosalind: a fair account, 4 Nov 2003
This review is from: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (Paperback)
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.
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