Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Reviewer: Barbara J. Martín, MD


February 03, 2003


By Breñda Maddox
HarperCollins Publishers
Copyright 2002
380 pages
ISBN: 0-06-018407-8
$29.95 hardcover

Among the actors central to the epic revelation of DNA's structure -- Francis Crick and James Watson at Cambridge University and Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at King's College, London -- the murkiest figure was the lone woman Franklin. But now, the uncertain legacy of Franklin and her role in the 20th century's premier biological discovery (for which Crick, Watson, and Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel prize in physiology) appear resolved in a new sweeping life story, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA, by British biographer Brenda Maddox.

Before the publication of Maddox's expansive book, 2 contradictory sources chiefly informed Franklin's personal character and her contribution to the DNA discovery: Watson's engaging but divisive 1968 memoir of the historic breakthrough, The Double Helix,[1] and Anne Sayre's 1975 Rosalind Franklin and DNA,[2] a rebuttal to Watson's ungracious portrayal of Franklin in his account. (Sayre was a British journalist and close friend of Franklin.) From these polar works, Franklin's portrait swung from belligerent spinster scientist to ripped-off martyr of feminist causes. Unfortunately, Franklin, throughout the ensuing decades, could not defend her temperament or provide her perspective on the DNA investigation; she died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. Franklin was also ineligible for the 1962 Nobel prize, because posthumous nominations are not considered.

The debate regarding Franklin's role in the DNA discovery largely hinged on the appropriation of data from an immaculate x-ray crystallographic image of DNA taken by Franklin in May 1952. The following January, Crick and Watson learned of Franklin's unpublished image -- by way of Wilkins and unbeknownst to Franklin -- and used her radiograph as the basis for modeling DNA's full-blown helical structure. In 1 stunningly short month, the Cambridge duo made several remarkable intuitive leaps to ascertain the correct DNA configuration, and they cemented their historic claim in a quickly penned, understated letter -- complete with the now legendary double-helix diagram -- to the periodical Nature. In the 1953 publication, Crick and Watson acknowledged being "stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E Franklin, and their co-workers at King's..."[3]

In his memoir, Watson implied that Franklin didn't know what she had in her crystallographic image, let alone what to do with it. He alleged that Franklin -- when it came to assessing the DNA form -- was indignantly antihelical and dead-set against model building (a practice popularized by Linus Pauling with his disclosure of the protein alpha helix in January 1951). Not so, rebutted Sayre, who indicated that Watson contrived his retrospective statements on Franklin's views to defend his less-than-forthright use of her data. Franklin clearly saw the helical nature of DNA in her image, as proved by her explicit laboratory notes. And, Sayre noted, Franklin was merely against premature, non-fact-based DNA modeling, as demonstrated by her spoken contempt for Crick's and Watson's first, ham-fisted effort in November 1951.

The acclaimed 1987 BBC-television movie, The Race for the Double Helix, drew heavily on Watson's memoir and the spirit of Sayre's sympathetic portrait of Franklin to provide relatively even-handed depictions of the main figures in the discovery.[4] While this is largely a film of how 3 men garnered science's top prize by commandeering the data of a poorly credited woman, the picture also contrasted Franklin's style of demanding unambiguous scientific evidence -- obtained step by carefully plotted step -- against Crick's and Watson's willingness to make discerning scientific conjectures. Distinguished, as well, was the Cambridge pair's free-flowing exchange from the wall of silence between Franklin and Wilkins at King's. Of the multifaceted portrayal of his female colleague, Crick wrote in his 1988 memoir, What Mad Pursuit, "[Rosalind] is not only the true center of the film -- she is almost the only person who really appears to be doing science -- but we have a more complex inside view of her than of most of the other characters."[5]

Now on this background comes Maddox's scrupulously researched Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, for which she mined a vast range of information from Franklin's family, friends, and colleagues -- including extensive archival holdings used by Sayre and interviews with Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. Maddox produces the most fully blown portrait yet of the brilliant, prolific scientist, whose timely recognition may have been undermined as much by her character shortcomings as by pervasive sexism. Franklin was often gracious and fun-loving but also, by turns, taciturn, petulant, and just downright difficult to know. To Wilkins especially, she was the "dark lady," as he dubbed her in a 1953 note to Crick.

Describing a woman whose work disclosed the molecular structure of heredity, Maddox begins perhaps too cutely with an improbably far-reaching record of Franklin's ancestry, tracing the subject's well-heeled Anglo-Jewish roots to none other than the biblical King David. Franklin was descended more recently from a line of British financiers, and her youth was shaped by the tony British dictates of nannies and select boarding schools.

From an early age, Franklin was afflicted by lasting dualities of character. Her social affability was at odds with a natural insularity, argumentativeness, and later sexual prudery. Quoting one of Franklin's longtime girlfriends, Maddox writes, "She did not talk about men as the rest of us did...and it seemed impossible to break down her reserve." (pp 84, 85) However romantically inhibited Franklin remained, she was at all times intellectually gifted, with an easy aptitude for science and math and a resolute standard of academic triumph. Yet her talent and drive were often destabilized by unfounded self-doubt. An 18-year-old Franklin was certain she bungled her chemistry acceptance examination to Cambridge. Despite her apprehension, she placed first.

With a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1945, Franklin entered a scientific atmosphere that was partly reformed by the pragmatic decline of flagrant sexism during wartime. She eventually acquired a research position in the Parisian laboratory of crystallographer Jacques Mering, from whom she learned the technique of bombarding a molecule with x-rays to determine its structure. In Paris, Franklin thrived both professionally and socially and became the ardent Francophile. She wrote to her mother, "I have always preferred 'foreigners' to the English." (p 12) Therefore, her decision in 1950 to search voluntarily, but very reluctantly, for a research position in England is mystifying. Maddox exhaustively chronicles the minutiae of Franklin's life, so the absence of substantive reasons for Franklin's desire to move from a beloved job and location is striking. However, Maddox does intimate that Franklin harbored a conflicted attraction to the philandering Mering.

Part one of Maddox's tripartite book is otherwise meticulously thorough, and the author seems to adhere to a school of biography dictating that no unearthed detail be omitted. (Is it necessary to know that Franklin's waist size in Paris was 27 inches?) Such fastidious writing -- including lengthy quotations from travelogues -- can render the less historic parts of Franklin's life tedious. But the author's sensitivity to the highly specific fortifies the second part of the biography, which concerns Franklin's 2 short, crucial years at King's.

When covering 1951-1953, Maddox's book may well contain the most complete and equitable account to date of who did what, when, in the complex back-and-forth between and within King's and Cambridge. Maddox not only precisely chronicles the sequential events of the DNA discovery, she also limns the quirks and maneuverings of the primary actors, the influences of the global scientific environment (including competitive efforts by Linus Pauling in California), and the impact of important secondary characters. Maddox substantively explores the political and practical facets of life in the academic laboratory. In defense of Wilkins's ultimate claim to DNA glory, Maddox quotes Franklin's graduate student, who was on good terms with both senior scientists at King's: "Maurice had a perfect right to that information. . .There was so much going on at King's before Rosalind came." (p 196)

What is really crystallized at the end of Maddox's part 2 narrative, though, is just how astonishingly close Franklin came to determining the DNA structure in what would have been, in essence, a solo effort. As Maddox indicates, however, Franklin was not inclined, like Crick and Watson, "to go beyond hard evidence" (p 202) with speculation, no matter how attractive. Perhaps owing to the lingering self-doubt of youth, Franklin demanded of herself irrefutable data. The author adds, "An outrageous leap of the imagination would have been as out of character as running up an overdraft or wearing a red strapless dress." (p 202)

A month before publication of the DNA structure in Nature, Franklin left King's and her frosty relationship with Wilkins to perform x-ray crystallography at the inferiorly equipped Birkbeck. Here, Franklin at last enjoyed a suitable collaborator, despite equipment and funding hardships, and became an elite scientist who explored the relationship between RNA and protein in plant viruses, the eventual field also of Watson. Particularly enlightening is Maddox's account of the aftermath of the DNA discovery and the ensuing rapport among Franklin and her former colleagues. Contact between Franklin and Watson became mutually cordial (before Watson's literary nastiness to Franklin), and both Crick and Watson -- as the newly elevated statesmen of biological science -- were powerful allies in the advancement of Franklin's global reputation (performed perhaps as compensation for usurping her data). Franklin became especially fond of the uncommonly bright Crick, whom she came to know well socially, along with Crick's French wife. For the remainder of Franklin's life, however, infrequent contact with Wilkins was invariably cool.

Maddox concludes by musing on the probable direction of Franklin's life, had Franklin not succumbed to a premature death. Certainly continued professional advancement was likely, and Franklin may have escalated a friendship with an admiring and like-minded American crystallographer, Don Casper. But would Franklin have replaced Wilkins in the trio receiving the 1962 Nobel prize (which is bestowed to no more than 3 persons for a single category)? Not likely, rejoins Maddox; the Nobel committee is notoriously political and "encourages fraternity." (p 323) She continues, "The Nobel prize, by canonising individuals, disguises the truth that they are all, in Newton's famous phrase, standing 'on giants' shoulders' and on each other's as well." (p 327) For Franklin, the loss was not a Nobel laurel nor due credit for the DNA discovery but, as Maddox answers, life itself.


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