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.
However, 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.
- 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”. ↩
- 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”. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Apart from his misogyny, Watson also refuses to hire “fat people” and thinks Africans are less intelligent than white people. What a charming man. ↩