Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

I’ve just finished reading an excellent biography of Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who received no credit (at least, not during her lifetime) for her work on the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick appropriated her data without her knowledge or consent, and used it to construct their double helix model of DNA. When they published their work in Nature in 1953, they mentioned the DNA research being carried out at her lab in King’s College, but falsely claimed that they “were not aware of the details of the results presented there when we revised our structure”. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962, but neglected to mention Rosalind Franklin’s name in their speeches, and Watson’s 1968 book, The Double Helix, portrayed her as a dowdy shrew who couldn’t understand her own data.

'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda MaddoxHowever, Rosalind Franklin was far more than “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male”. Brenda Maddox paints a vivid portrait of the woman who

“achieved an international reputation in three different fields of scientific research while at the same time nourishing a passion for travel, a gift for friendship, a love of clothes and good food, and a strong political conscience [and who] never flagged in her duties to the distinguished Anglo-Jewish family of which she was a loyal, if combative, member.”

Rosalind was an “alarmingly clever” girl, the eldest daughter in a family of philanthropists that had made a fortune from banking and publishing. Her father was politically conservative, but there were a number of left-wing rebels in the family1. The book contains wonderful descriptions, often from Rosalind’s own letters, of her childhood in Notting Hill and of her time at St Paul’s Girls’ School, which was then one of the few schools that prepared girls for a career. She went up to Cambridge in 1938, as bomb shelters were being dug in Hyde Park and her family were taking in Jewish refugees from Austria. By the end of the war, she had a PhD in physical chemistry and was working on war-related research about coal. After a few years in Paris, she returned (reluctantly) to London, where the focus of her research changed to the structure of DNA, and then the structure of viruses.

Don’t be put off, thinking this book is filled with Difficult Science. I’m hardly an expert in X-Ray crystallography, but I was able to follow the progress of Rosalind’s research quite easily, thanks to Maddox’s clear descriptions and diagrams. It probably helps to have some interest in DNA, but you can skim the scientific descriptions if you must. What is really fascinating (and infuriating) is Maddox’s account of the experiences of women scientists in the 1940s and 1950s – how they were refused admission to the Royal Society until 19452, missed out on nominations for awards and research positions, were paid less than men for equal work, and were refused admission to university common rooms and research facilities3. Rosalind, who was a perfectionist and was widely regarded as ‘prickly’, often antagonised senior male researchers. For example, Norman Pirie, a specialist in plant viruses, wrote her a patronising letter in 1954, criticising her data that showed tobacco mosaic virus rods were all the same length. As it turned out, she was right and he was wrong. But he was also friends with the head of the council that was funding her research, which subsequently refused to provide any more money, even though her work had the potential to lead to a cure for a range of viral diseases, including polio.

Despite her constant battles at work, Rosalind comes across as a woman who embraced life. She was wonderful with children, she loved to cook elaborate dinners for her friends, and her greatest joy was hiking trips into the mountains. She made two journeys across the United States in the 1950s, and her letters about her travels are affectionate and amusing. She died tragically young, at the age of only thirty-seven, of ovarian cancer. The head of her research facility, J.D. Bernal, wrote that it was “a great loss to science”. He praised her “single-minded devotion to scientific research”, noting that

“As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-Ray photographs of any substance ever taken.”

Despite James Watson’s4 many attempts to belittle Rosalind’s intelligence and personality after her death, the world eventually came to recognise the value of her work. Buildings at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Newnham College and King’s College are now named after her, and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London – below those of Watson and Crick, of course.

Highly recommended if you’re interested in science, or feminism, or simply want to read the story of a fascinating, forthright young woman.

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  1. One uncle was “a pro-suffragist who in 1910 had accosted the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill on a train and attempted to strike him with a dogwhip because of Churchill’s opposition to women’s suffrage. (Churchill was unharmed by the attack and continued on to the dining car.)” One aunt was a “socialist with cropped hair and pinstriped clothes” (and a girlfriend), while another aunt was a trade unionist who married a diplomat and caused a scandal by “driving her own car”.
  2. In 1902, Hertha Ayrton, engineer and physicist, was refused admittance to this “citadel of Britain’s scientific elite … on the ground that as a married woman, she was not a legal person”.
  3. This wasn’t just in Britain. Women were not allowed to set foot inside the physics building at Princeton in the 1950s, and were banned from working as physics instructors at Harvard until the 1970s.
  4. Apart from his misogyny, Watson also refuses to hire “fat people” and thinks Africans are less intelligent than white people. What a charming man.

Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

'Alex and Me' by Irene M. PepperbergI love birds, and science, and books, so how could I not love a book about a talking bird, written by the scientist who raised him? Alex and Me is a touching, funny account of a scientist who trained an African Grey parrot to talk, in order to gather information about bird cognition and language. Alex learned how to label colours, materials and objects, knew ‘same’ versus ‘different’, was able to construct original phrases from words he’d been taught, could count to six and possibly add numbers, and even taught himself to segment words into phonemes, after being taught how to link English speech sounds to plastic letters. He played jokes on his trainers, loved to dance and be tickled, and said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Calm down’ during tense situations after watching people in the lab use these phrases. The book is full of entertaining Alex anecdotes – for example, he once ordered a toy parrot, ‘You tickle!’ and then, when the toy failed to respond, said, ‘You turkey!’ and stalked off in a huff. When recuperating at the vet’s after an operation, he wanted to talk to everyone he saw, including the accountant who was working late one night:

“‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
‘No, Alex.’
He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally Alex became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

I must admit that Dr Pepperberg is not the world’s greatest writer, and this book would have benefitted from further editing. I really didn’t need to know the details of the author’s childhood or her early studies, for example, and I would have liked more information about how Alex produced human-like sounds when he didn’t have lips or teeth. I’d also have loved some photos of Alex (although I later found a film clip of him in action). Another issue, barely alluded to in the book, is how captivity affected Alex’s life. His beak, claws and wings were clipped when he was young, and he never had the chance to fly, to sit in a tree or to mate with another parrot. Dr Pepperberg had difficulties securing permanent research funding, and the constant moves around the country made Alex so stressed that at times, he pulled his own feathers out. I’d like to think that a similar research project nowadays would show greater concern for the bird’s welfare, although it’s clear from the book that Dr Pepperberg and Alex had a strong, affectionate bond and that she was devastated by his relatively early death at the age of thirty-one.

One thing that surprised me was how resistant many scientists were to Dr Pepperberg’s theories (and evidence) about animal cognition and language, with many refusing to accept that animals could actually use ‘language’. Some continue to believe that Alex was merely repeating the sounds he heard without any understanding of their meaning, and that his intelligent behaviour was simply a ‘Clever Hans’ effect, with Alex responding to cues from his handlers during testing. This seems highly unlikely to me – the research was carefully planned to control for the ‘Clever Hans’ effect by using multiple trainers and testers. Anyway, Alex repeatedly demonstrated complex, novel, situation-specific behaviours that could not have been prompted by his handlers. But perhaps some scientists feel threatened by the notion that animals other than themselves are capable of intelligent behaviour, of using language – of even, perhaps, experiencing human-like emotions.

I’ve never met an African Grey parrot, but I’ve spent the past decade watching the wild rainbow lorikeets that hang out on my apartment balcony and they use language. Rainbow lorikeets don’t imitate human sounds, but are capable of ‘almost continuous screeching and chattering’, as Jim Flegg’s Birds of Australia says. They make happy, murmuring sounds when they’re feeding or grooming each other; enquiring calls if their mate is out of sight, rising in intensity if the other bird doesn’t respond immediately; sharp, angry sounds when another bird muscles in on their territory; and inquisitive, chirruping sounds at me if I’m watering my balcony plants or appear to be eating something they might like. When baby rainbow lorikeets want their parents’ attention (which is pretty much all the time), they make a noise like bits of styrofoam rubbing against each other, and the harassed parents respond as quickly as they can. Isn’t that ‘using language’? But I think they go even further in human-like behaviours than simply using language.

One morning last year, I was awakened by the sound of some rainbow lorikeets screeching with distress outside my window. I went out to investigate, assuming they were being harassed by currawongs, and found a dead adult lorikeet lying on my balcony. It showed no obvious signs of injury or disease – the poor thing had simply died. Two lorikeets were sitting on the balcony railing, looking down at the dead bird and screeching, but they fell silent when they saw me and climbed down the railings to have a closer look. One of them started grooming the feathers around the dead bird’s face; the other took hold of the dead bird’s claw and gave it a couple of tugs, as if to urge it to wake up. The two birds climbed back up onto the railings to watch while I took the body away, and then flew to a nearby tree branch, where they sat for twenty minutes gazing at the spot where the dead bird had been. Did they feel sad? Or confused? It’s impossible to tell, but they were certainly unsettled by what they’d seen – and this was an adult bird that had died, not their baby.

As I don’t have any photos of Alex, here are some photos of rainbow lorikeets. First, a rainbow lorikeet eating a grape:

Rainbow lorikeet

And a group of rainbow lorikeets hanging out on my balcony:

Lorikeets on balcony

And finally, rainbow lorikeets take flight:

Rainbow lorikeets take flight

A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

As I’ve previously mentioned, I love the North American cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, which features a girl in a glamorous 1930s ballgown. One of the shadowy figures in the background is a young man who seems to be smoking a cigarette, and I did wonder how long it would be before someone objected to this. Not very long at all, it turns out. A few weeks after the book was released, this US librarian commented about it on her blog:

“It’s probably a good idea when you market a book for teens that the cover image not feature things that teens can’t do – so, having someone drinking on the cover isn’t usually a good idea. Neither is smoking.”

'The FitzOsbornes in Exile' North American hardcover
Yes, he's smoking – but that doesn't mean YOU should smoke
The librarian was far more observant than I was, because she noticed that the cigarette in the young man’s hand had been Photoshopped out of existence – and that was before she compared the cover to the look-alike cover of Consequences of the Heart, in which the cigarette is clearly visible. I’d just assumed ‘my’ young man was holding a cigarette and that the camera angle meant the cigarette was hidden behind his fingers. It’s obvious that a white cloud is hovering next to his hand, and I imagined most people would assume he was smoking. Characters in the book smoke, so why shouldn’t characters on the cover do the same thing?

I can see why responsible adults might be concerned about this. Smoking is bad; therefore, we should make sure that all images of smoking are unappealing, especially if they’re going to be seen by impressionable teenagers. The question is whether art and literature should be censored to achieve a social aim, and whether such censorship is actually effective in achieving those aims.

I should say here that I’ve never smoked. I loathe the smell of cigarettes and I wish everyone in the world, but especially people in my apartment building, would stop smoking. I also worked as a speech pathologist for fifteen years and not many speech pathologists smoke, because we have a very clear understanding of the awful health problems caused by smoking (and those dissected tar-soaked lungs they insisted on showing us during our university anatomy lessons were fairly off-putting, too).

However, I also write historical novels, which I try to make as realistic as possible, and the fact is, attitudes to smoking were quite different in the past. I’ve seen 1930s advertisements in which ‘doctors’ solemnly claimed that a certain brand of cigarette was a healthy way to relieve stress. No one knew about lung cancer or laryngeal cancer or heart disease then. (Actually, some of the first research into the health dangers of smoking was carried out by a Nazi doctor on the orders of Hitler, a non-smoker). In 1930s England, most men smoked some form of tobacco, and ladies who wished to be thought of as ‘sophisticated’ carried around little silver cases of cigarettes. And is there a photograph in existence of Winston Churchill without his cigar?

It would be ridiculous if none of the dozens of characters in The FitzOsbornes in Exile smoked, but I did think carefully about who would smoke. Of the young characters, Sophie and Veronica are too well brought up (and impoverished) to have developed a cigarette habit. Julia, despite her sophistication, is never seen smoking. Rupert’s health problems preclude him taking up smoking. Daniel either doesn’t have the money to buy cigarettes, or doesn’t want to support capitalist tobacco companies. The only main characters identified as smokers are Toby, who mentions cadging cigarettes at the beginning of the first Montmaray book, and Simon, who’s occasionally seen lighting the cigarette of a woman he’s trying to seduce. I don’t think either of these characters could be regarded as good role models for teenagers. Toby has a perpetual hangover and gets expelled from a series of educational institutions, while Simon’s morals are ambiguous, to put it generously. I don’t think any non-smoking teenager is going to read The FitzOsbornes in Exile and think, “Gosh, I want to be just like Toby and Simon! I’m going to start smoking!”

Come to think of it, even the ‘good’ FitzOsbornes behave in ways that are not terribly healthy. They speed around the countryside in a sports car while not wearing seatbelts, eat pastries laden with refined sugar and full-fat cream, and taunt Nazis from the windows of slow-moving trains. But I really don’t think my readers are going to emulate any of those behaviours. (Apart from eating cakes – and I’m sure my readers would consume them in moderation and then incorporate an appropriate amount of exercise into their daily routines.)

However, is it possible that teenagers might see the cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile in a school library or a bookshop, and, not having read the book, start to think, “Smoking is cool”? Yes, it’s possible. They could also get the same idea from watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, or from viewing any number of modern films. It’s far more likely they’d be influenced by the attitudes of their friends and family.

So, I have to say to teenagers: if you’re reading this and you’re tempted in any way, for whatever reason, to start smoking, DON’T DO IT! SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU!

You’re allowed to read my books, though, if you really want.