Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. Specifically it will contain a book report on the book, including detailed examples of Franklin and her importance to the world of biology. Who was Rosalind Franklin? Brenda Maddox attempts to answer this question in this book, but she does much more. She paints a picture of a dedicated female scientist who may have been taken advantage of by her male cohorts. She also paints a picture of a woman dedicated to her work, who was simply happy with the discovery, rather than the credit. The book is insightful, interesting, and compelling enough to keep the reader wondering what will happen next. Maddox created a convincing picture of Rosalind Franklin, and anyone interested in science, the feminist perspective, and history would find this book a good read.
In 1953, scientists Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins “discovered” DNA, the magical link to life in the strands of a double helix. However, many people believe the three scientists could not have completed their discovered without the groundbreaking work of Rosalind Franklin. Her startling photos of x-rays were the beginnings of understanding the DNA molecules but Franklin receives little credit for her contribution. First, she died in 1958 at the age of thirty-seven, just five years after the discovery. Robbed of her life by ovarian cancer, many feel she was also robbed of a Nobel Prize that the three scientists shared in 1962 for their discovery. This book is a look into the life of Rosalind Franklin – what led her to become a scientist, what kind of scientist she was, and how many of these rumors, myths, and stories are true. Was Franklin bitter about her work going unaccredited? Did she believe the scientists stole her work and never acknowledged her part in it? The book answers these questions and many others, and is a credible and interesting story of Franklin’s life, her work, and most of all, the myths and controversy that has made her a legendary figure in feminist and female scientist circles.
Maddox’s thesis is fairly simple. She wants to chronicle the life of Rosalind Franklin, and she wants to set the record straight about Franklin’s career, her part in the DNA discovery, and how she felt about the three other scientists getting all the credit. The first time her story was publicly mentioned was in the book Watson published about the discovery in 1968 called “The Double Helix.” As Maddox notes about the book, “In it, she is the terrible ‘Rosy’, the bad-tempered bluestocking who hoarded her data and might have been pretty if she had taken off her glasses and done something interesting with her hair” (Maddox xviii). It seems that the real Franklin was something between the “terrible” and the admired. Many of her colleagues loved her, and some loathed her. Her family never realized just what a good scientist she was until after she died. Today, Maddox wants the truth to be known about Franklin, and so, she set out to write this book and tell what she had discovered about the elusive scientist.
The author uses extensive research to back up her story of Franklin’s life. Her bibliography and notes include primary and secondary sources from a great number of sources in both the United States and Great Britain. She also uses many lectures, notes, and articles from the scientist herself to attempt to get into the mind of the woman and discover what she really felt about her colleagues and their use of her material. Maddox is clearly an excellent researcher, but even more, she is able to tell the story clearly, and keep the reader interested, which is often difficult with complex scientific discussions. In fact, in a candid diary entry, Maddox notes a trip to Paris simply to locate the flat where Franklin lived after taking her first research job. Maddox writes, “Continuing the mundane travail of the author, I search for 16 avenue de la Motte-Picquet, the 1950 address of the subject of my next book, the DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin” (Maddox 8). This attention to detail is quite helpful in creating a full and dynamic picture of Franklin’s life and work. Franklin’s life is fascinating, partly because of who she was and partly because Maddox helps make it that way. As one reviewer of the book notes, “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” (Creager). Thus, Maddox set out to retell a story that opens up a life in a new way, and reviewers and readers believe she succeeded very well.
One of the reasons the book is interesting and keeps the reader involved is because, for the most part, Maddox tends to write as if she was writing a novel, rather than a biography. She describes the characters vividly, so they come alive in the pages, and she uses personal information to make them seem real and animated to the reader. For example, she writes of Rosalind, “Indeed, Rosalind was a stormy child, easily roused to tears and anger” (Maddox 18), and it is easy to see the dark-haired, having a tantrum in the nursery. Maddox continues this throughout the book, using description, personal letters, and vivid recollections, plus copious research to show the characters of Franklin, her family, her colleagues, and her friends. This all helps to make Franklin a more complete character, but it also helps to move the book along. Even though there is much detail, it does not bog down in the detail because it seems more like fiction rather than a straight and dry account of a person’s life written long after they were dead and gone.
Another area of the book that is interesting as it delves into the history of DNA research and physics is the lack of females in this branch of science. Maddox notes that only three women had one a Nobel Prize by the 1950s, and that physics was one of the most male-dominated of the sciences. She writes, “Of all the sciences, moreover, physics was, as it has remained, the most male-dominated. The science historian Margaret Wertheim in 1995 dubbed it ‘the priesthood of science’” (Maddox 134). Thus, Franklin was working in an area that often did not appreciate or acknowledge females, and so, from that standpoint, it seems rather usual that researchers Watson, Crick, and Wilkins would use her to develop their own theories, never giving her credit or acknowledgement until much later. In the Epilogue, the author notes that Franklin has begun to receive credit for her contribution to the DNA research at long last, and one of her colleagues noted, “Rosalind Franklin, he said, had introduced him to the study of viruses and set an example of tackling large and difficult problems: ‘Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion’” (Maddox 325). Maddox manages to portray Franklin realistically, however, not as a martyr, and so, the book is thought provoking as well as poignant. It also portrays the difficulties women faced (and still face) in many areas of scientific research and discovery, and shows that one person can truly make a difference in what they do.
While the book is an interesting and even vivid read, and it delves deeply into Franklin’s life, that is not to say that it is without fault. There are many interviews and personal memories included in the book, and many of them could be clouded with age, or are unverifiable with any other accounts. As reviewer Creager continues, “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” (Creager). Thus, some of her conclusions can be questioned, and some of her research may never be able to be verified. All in all, however, the book stands on its own, and the research is exhaustive, even if some of it cannot be totally proven.
There is one other part of the book that is sometimes difficult to get past. While the stories of Franklin, her family, her schooling, and her career read mostly like a novel, the author intersperses detail that sometimes takes away from the story. Much of the detail is necessary to fully understand Franklin’s life and accomplishment, but some of it is quite detailed science or history. For example, the author stops the narrative to explain the history of Cambridge and how it related to Franklin’s education, and the author stops again to go into a detailed description of the research into DNA and its components. While this is certainly important to the overall story, it is sometimes jarring. Most of the book is quite an easy read, but some of these sections seem to go on indefinitely, and they might cause at least some readers to skip them and move on to more interesting information.
While many women point to Franklin as a representative of early feminist thinking and discovery, Maddox does not use this tone specifically in her book. In fact, she delves into her Jewish background from some of Franklin’s behavior that was called “difficult” by some of her colleagues. Reviewer Creager notes,
In particular, she [Maddox] 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 (Creager).
This makes the book more well rounded, and not just a feminist treatise at a wronged woman scientist. It seems from Franklin’s own writings that this is the way she would have wanted to be remembered – a scientist who made a contribution rather than simply a woman scientist. Another reviewer notes, “As a scientist Miss Franklin was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most of any substance ever taken” (Mendelsohn). Thus, her real legacy, helped on by the portrayal in this book, is one of perfection and understanding, mingled with a quick wit and some insecurity thrown in. Maddox shows Franklin as an icon, but an icon with all the foibles of the human race. She often was not sure of herself, she was brilliant in science and math, and she had few close friends. She dedicated most of her life to her work, and the reader has to wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived longer.
In an interesting development not covered in the book, but discussed in other circles, Franklin’s help with DNA research pointed her in a different direction than Crick and the others, and she made that distinction in notes she sent to Watson and Crick:
Rosalind Franklin, who did much of the pioneering work on DNA X-ray diffraction doubted whether DNA was necessarily helical. She wrote in her notebook in 1952 that one of the two, common forms in which DNA crystallizes (the a form) could not be a helix, and sent a note to Watson and Crick to that effect (Root-Bernstein).
Today, many scientists are questioning the double helix spiral staircase form of DNA, and it seems that Franklin also questioned the helix formation. Therefore, her research may still be timely today, and may someday help prove the DNA form Watson and the others championed may not be entirely correct, something that would fit in nicely with the alternative theme of this book, that Franklin was somewhat of a maverick whose work was never fully recognized.
In conclusion, Maddox’s book is an insightful look into the life of one of the unsung scientists of American history. Franklin’s life is at once sad that it was so short and incredibly inspiring for the work she accomplished during her relatively short time as a scientist. As the author notes at the end of the Preface, “The measure of her success lies in the strength of her friendships, the devotion of her colleagues, the vitality of her letters and a legacy of discovery that would do credit to a scientific career twice its length” (Maddox xix). Rosalind Franklin was a remarkable woman, and this book allows new generations to understand her importance, her legacy, and her contributions to some of our most important scientific discoveries.
Creager, Angela N.H. “Crystallizing a Life in Science.” American Scientist Jan.-Feb. 2003: 64+.
Maddox, Brenda. “Diary.” New Statesman 17 Apr. 2000: 8.
Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.
Mendelsohn, Everett I. “Happy Birthday, DNA! Return with Us Now to Those Thrilling Days of Discovery Fifty Years Ago This Month.” Natural History Apr. 2003: 62+.
Root-Bernstein, Robert. “Do We Have the Structure of DNA Right? Aesthetic Assumptions, Visual Conventions and Unsolved Problems.” Art Journal 55.1 (1996): 47+.