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Crystallizing a Life in Science

Angela Creager

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Brenda Maddox. xx + 380 pp. HarperCollins, 2002. $29.95.

Rosalind Franklin.Click to Enlarge Image

Ever since James Watson published The Double Helix in 1968, scientists and feminists alike have complained about the inaccuracy and misogyny of his representation of Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray diffraction patterns provided crucial parameters for the DNA model he built with Francis Crick. In Rosalind Franklin and DNA, published in 1975, Anne Sayre set out to correct the historical record, but her defensive tone makes the book dreary compared with Watson's riveting personal account, which reads like a novel. At long last, with the publication of Brenda Maddox's new book, Franklin's side of the story has been told with an energy and eloquence that rival Watson's. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA will attract a large readership, and deservedly so.

Maddox, who has written biographies of D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats and Nora Joyce (wife of James Joyce), here turns her perspicacious eye and literary sensibility to a little-studied but often-cited woman scientist, drawing very effectively on Franklin's papers, especially her letters to family members, to create a nuanced portrait. The book is an engrossing read. Maddox's treatment of the science is adequate (especially for readers who already grasp the essentials), and her sensitivity to the human drama is admirable.

This is not a perfect history: Maddox relies heavily (and unsurprisingly) on interviews and reminiscences, and some pieces of the story cannot be confirmed. In general, she is careful to indicate which elements are speculative or controversial, but she is puzzlingly uncritical of scientific folklore. For example, when accounting for the development of molecular biology, she perpetuates the founding myth that the field owes its existence to war-weary physicists who read Erwin Schrödinger's What Is Life? Overall, though, her interpretations are astute. She depicts Franklin's own scientific trajectory with careful attention to the political and social contexts, highlighting—and clarifying—Franklin's contribution to the understanding of double-helical DNA.

Maddox recovers a more complex view of Franklin than the stereotyped rendering of her as scientific martyr—the woman whose data were stolen by Watson and Crick. In particular, she explores the issues posed not just by Franklin's sex, but also by her Jewish, upper-class background. In a national context in which science seemed to provide an arena in which class did not limit one's achievement, Franklin's speech and formality struck some colleagues as aristocratic and outmoded. And although the realm of scientific research was a refuge for Jewish intellectuals, it was not completely free of anti-Semitism. The perception of Franklin as a "difficult woman," in other words, reflected cultural animosities that surpassed mere sexism.

At another level, by focusing substantial attention on Franklin's achievements working on the molecular structure of coal and on virus research, Maddox resists reducing Franklin's success to her involvement in the (admittedly central) scientific story of DNA. She also corrects small misconceptions that have been propagated in the many existing potted biographies of Franklin. For instance, Franklin's father did not oppose her education at Cambridge, contrary to common assertions. More consequentially, and contrary to what Watson and others have indicated, Maddox argues that Franklin never doubted that the "B" form of DNA was a helix. (The fallacy that she had such doubts may have served to justify the use of her data by others on the grounds that they had to pursue its implications for the helicity of DNA because she was unwilling to do so.)

The Rosalind Franklin that emerges from this biography is a woman of impressive resolve and stunning experimental skills. She not only relished traveling, but also enjoyed vigorous, even dangerous, hiking expeditions. She was equally single-minded in the laboratory and on the mountainside. Maddox attributes Franklin's tenacity in large part to her familial upbringing and shows how she reflected her father's forceful personality. Her distinguished Anglo-Jewish family tree is interesting in its own right, but the chapters on her early life are the least absorbing part of the book. Her frustrating experience as an undergraduate at Cambridge was unexceptional, as were her conflicting desires for independence and family approval. However, reaching adulthood in the midst of war strongly shaped Franklin's career aspirations and possibilities. Raised with a strong sense of national duty, she was gratified to land a war-related job doing structural research on coal. It is the account of her subsequent life as a researcher that proves most engaging.

After the war, Franklin's originality in accounting for the macroscopic properties of coal in terms of "microscopic sieves"—in conjunction with a fortuitous friendship with Adrienne Weill—resulted in a job in a French national chemistry laboratory. This was a defining experience for Franklin, who learned the techniques of crystallography under the tutelage of Jacques Mering. She loved Paris and relished the intellectual passion of scientists there.

Her return to London in 1951 to work in J. T. Randall's lavishly furnished biophysics laboratory resulted in both her most widely cited experimental achievements and her most miserable circumstances as a scientist. That she did not get along with coworker Maurice Wilkins has been recognized since The Double Helix was published. Maddox sheds new light on the situation. Randall was not above playing the two researchers off each other. Although Randall specifically instructed Franklin to work on DNA and told her that she, assisted by student Raymond Gosling, would have the x-ray work to herself, Wilkins was left with the impression that the DNA project was the property of his group and that Franklin was part of his team. The results of these early misunderstandings were disastrous. The intense antipathy between Franklin and Wilkins did not help matters. Maddox does a good job of trying to account for this personality clash, even as she points out that the two had much in common.

In the end, Franklin's sense of not belonging in King's College, with its Anglican legacy and rambunctious laboratory culture, is easier to understand than her aversion to Wilkins. Although their conflict has not been fully explained, its consequences are undeniable. Wilkins, seeking sympathy for his situation, was easily milked by Watson and Crick for information about Franklin's unpublished findings. The two men got further details from her write-up in an unpublished Medical Research Council (MRC) report passed to them by their Cambridge colleague Max Perutz.

Franklin left King's College in March of 1953, a month before Watson and Crick published their model. She herself had come achingly close to deducing the double-helical structure of DNA, as Maddox makes clear. But Franklin did not recognize the significance of the monoclinic C2 symmetry in the diffraction patterns of her "B" DNA. Crick, whose dissertation was on hemoglobin, which also had C2 symmetry, perceived its meaning: The nucleic acid strands were antiparallel, enabling them to serve as templates for each other. This insight, along with Watson's inference of base-pairing, enabled the two men to capitalize on Franklin's unpublished findings. Did she ever recognize how much they had relied on her work? Maddox argues that she could not have been unaware. Yet it is hard to believe that she would have developed such collegial relations with Watson and Crick after leaving King's College had she realized how critical her diffraction pattern and analysis had been to their achievement.

At Franklin's new research post, in J. D. Bernal's crystallography laboratory at Birkbeck College, she shifted gears again and pursued virus structure. Maddox shows how she learned a new experimental system, made important strides in using crystallographic methods to elucidate virus structure and built up a formidable research group. She communicated regularly with Watson and Crick, who were collaborating on a theory of virus structure. In her pathbreaking investigation of the arrangement of protein subunits in tobacco mosaic virus, Franklin (along with coworkers Aaron Klug and Kenneth Holmes) confirmed Watson's early work postulating a helical virus structure, but corrected his placement of the nucleic acid. The mid- to late 1950s was a time of great professional success and recognition for Franklin. Maddox conveys the pleasure she derived from traveling to international conferences and laboratories.

Franklin was at the top of her game when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1956. While fighting cancer, she also fought valiantly to obtain the funding necessary to keep her research team together. It was in the course of this struggle that she most directly confronted the sexism and paternalism of Britain's scientific institutions. In the end, having successfully marshaled support for her continuing work, she did not live to see her laboratory group moved to Cambridge to join Max Perutz's prestigious molecular biology unit.

In a sensitive epilogue, Maddox traces the changing fortunes of Franklin since her death, especially as catalyzed by Watson's unflattering depiction of her. It has become commonplace to assert that Franklin was effectively cheated out of a Nobel Prize, even though the prize for the double helix was awarded to Watson, Crick and Wilkins four years after her death, and the prizes are never awarded posthumously. Both as a woman and as a scientist, Franklin is in dignified company in deserving but not receiving a Nobel prize. In the end, Maddox asserts, the real tragedy is simply that Franklin did not live long enough to finish her work. This vivid portrait of her makes us wish all the more that she had.

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