Aug 9, 2010

Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA is the story of the life of the woman whose work was pivotal for the discovery of the structure of DNA – but as Brenda Maddox is careful to point out, this was only one among Franklin’s many achievements. Rosalind Franklin was born in 1920 to an Anglo-Jewish family and went to Cambridge at a time where women were not awarded degrees. She then went on to work on the structure of coals, spent a little over two years working on DNA at King’s College in London, and later lead a research group that worked on viruses at Birkbeck College. By the time she died, at only 37, she had made significant headway in three independent field of research.

Despite everything I knew about the injustice of how Franklin was portrayed after her death, and despite my knowledge that women tend to be condescended to, this still surprised me. I had never realised that she was such a good scientist in her own right, and that she did so much more than “help” Watson and Crick with their work. She wasn’t “just” a competent lab technician – but sadly, even with all my questioning this was more or less what I’d come to believe.

A little bit of context for those who might not be familiar with Franklin: James Watson and Francis Crick are the two scientists credited with the discovery that the structure of DNA is a double helix. In 1962, they were awarded a Noble Prize for this discovery, along with Maurice Wilkins from King’s College. Wilkins was included because it was more or less acknowledge that the work of the research group he led had paved the way for Crick and Watson’s final intuitive leap. However, Rosalind Franklin, Wilkins’ colleague at King’s College, was barely even acknowledged. But as Watson and Crick were later to admit, her X-Ray photographs of DNA were crucial for their discovery. Moreover, Watson and Crick had illicit access to her data –a fact she must have suspected, but was never told to the end of her life. To add insult to injury, James Watson’s bestselling account of the discovery, The Double Helix, portrays her as “Rosy”, a cartoonish witch ready to “strike men in her red hot anger” and who greedily hoarded data she couldn’t possibly make sense of. What choice did Watson have, then, but to take said data by force?

Brenda Maddox’s compassionate and fair biography tells more than a straightforward story of bullying, harassment and gender discrimination – but then again, life is rarely as straightforward as that. Rosalind Franklin’s twenty-seven months at King’s College were indeed miserable, and gender was certainly one of the main reasons why it was so easy for her colleagues to dismiss her, condescend to her, or refuse to take her seriously. And yet later in life she became good friends with Watson and Crick, who were only too happy to exchange ideas with her on her work on viruses. To the end of her life, she wasn’t aware of the extent to which she’d been wronged.

Her friendship with Watson and Crick does not of course erase or even lessen the injustice that was done, but it’s a good example of how complex and insidious sexism really is, in science as in everything else. Franklin’s story isn’t really about whether or not Watson and Crick intended to take advantage of her work because she was a woman (intention is almost always made far too much of in these cases anyway); the fact is that they could do it and get away with it, because Franklin was powerless inside King’s College. And they had no qualms whatsoever about taking advantage of this power gap.

Another thing Brenda Maddox is careful to clarify is that the injustice here isn’t that Rosalind Franklin was left out of the Nobel. As she explains, the prize is never attributed posthumously, and never to groups of more than three researches. We can speculate that she wouldn’t have received it instead of Wilkins even if she had been alive, but that will never be more than just that – speculation. But even with these perfectly valid reasons for Franklin not having won the Nobel, a vague sense of wrongness prevails. This certainly has to do with The Double Helix, which came out after Franklin’s premature death and forever tainted her reputation. Attempts to make amends were made – Franklin had a building in King’s College named after her, which is unusual for a researcher who was only there for a little over two years, and Watson has been known to make half defensive half apologetic statements about Franklin in talks all over the world. And yet, as I said at the beginning of this post, most people think of her as a competent lab technician who could never have unveiled the structure of DNA on her own. The extremely intelligent woman Brenda Maddox portrays in this book was incredibly close to making that final intuitive leap, and would have certainly gotten there earlier if she had been working in a less hostile environment.

There’s more to Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox than just the story of a scientist who was wronged, however. The story of the DNA discovery itself is quite exciting, and it made me understand why The Double Helix must be such a good read (even if it contains lines such as, “Cleary Rosy had to go or be put in her place”, “Certainly a bad way to go out into the foulness of a heavy, foggy November night was to be told by a woman to refrain from venturing an opinion about a subject for which you were not trained” or “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab”).

Maddox’s biography is also an excellent portrait of a young Jewish woman coming of age as WW2 approached, of wartime Cambridge, of post-war Paris (where Franklin lived the happiest years of her life), of the ethics of science (or, as the case may be, the lack thereof), and of the personal side of great discoveries. Furthermore, it provides insight into the intellectual atmosphere in different universities in the years following the war, which was fascinating to read about.

Maddox is careful to include several excerpts of letters and to allow Rosalind Franklin to speak for herself as much as possible – something I really, really appreciate in biographies. A highly recommended book for anyone interested in the history of science, in early and mid-twentieth century Britain, and in gender issues.

Interesting bits:
Since Watson’s book, Rosalind Franklin has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the male. Yet this mythologising, intending to be reparative, has done her no favours. There was far more to her complex, fruitful, vigorous life than her twenty-seven unhappy months at King’s College London. She 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.
(I love the following passage – an excerpt from a letter Rosalind wrote to her father arguing against his assertion that her secular/scientific worldview made her cold and uncaring. It’s a perfect response to an accusation I’ve heard often myself, and a great expression of my own humanist credo: )
“You frequently state, and in your letter you imply, that I have developed a completely one-sided outlook and look at everything in terms of science. Obviously my method of thought and reasoning is influenced by my scientific training – if that were not so my scientific training would have been a waste and a failure. But you look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is bases on fact, experience and experiment. (…) I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort), but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e., belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining. Anyone able to believe in all that religion implies obviously must have such faith, but I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world (…). I see no reason why the belief that we are insignificant should lessen our faith – as I have defined it.”

Of all the sciences, moreover, physics was, and it has remained, the most male-dominated. The science historian Margaret Wertheim in 1995 dubbed it ‘the priesthood of science’. In her interpretation, the persistent cultural and psychological barriers to the entry of women into physics are a legacy of ancient religious tradition: the physicist or mathematician was a kind of priest, a conduit to God the divine mathematician. Physics departments in the egalitarian United States were scarcely more welcome to women than they were in Europe. Harvard University’s physics department in the 1950’s maintained a policy against the hiring of women as instructors – a ban that endured for a further two decades. (No woman professor gained tenure in physics until 1992.) Princeton was worse. In the 1950’s, not only were women forbidden to teach physics, they were not allowed into the physics building.

Why did Watson create Rosy the Witch? A plausible hypothesis holds that the character was a rationalisation of Watson’s guilt – a creature so hostile and uncooperative that there was no alternative to taking what you need by stealth. (…) From the feminine point of view, he wicked Rosy is a variant of an older myth, ‘She asked for it’, that tracks back to Eve: the woman is guiltier than the male. Unwittingly, Nannie Griffiths drew on this ancient lie when blaming young Rosalind for complaining that Colin had hit her with a cricket bat: “Well, dear, you shouldn’t have been teasing him.”
What cannot be denied is that ‘Rosy’ was essentially a villainess, for the plot of what Wilkins sometimes called “Jim’s novel”. Extraneous details, such as a later friendship or early death, would have spoiled the narrative.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. Argh, it makes my blood boil! How common this story is... and yet how often people still disbelieve that women faced (or face) these kinds of barriers in science and other fields.

  2. Unfortunately this is an all too common story. I actually feel quite angry on her behalf. Thankyou for making the time to put the detail in this review I found that very interesting.

  3. What injustice. And what a terrible thing that The Double Helix trashed her reputation so soon after her death.

  4. I had heard that she had more to do with the discovery than she was credited for, but hadn't known more than that. This sounds like a really great and informative book.

  5. This does sound like an interesting read, but also one that would infuriate me! It is so sad that she never got credit for her discovery and was made out to be a harpy who hoarded evidence. I am glad that this book exists to right some wrongs, though it is probably too little, too late.

  6. I probably told you this before, but if you can get your hands on it, you should really watch the NOVA episode, The Secret of Photo 51. Of course, be ready to have your blood boil if you do. Especially when they talk to Wilkins, and he says things like this: Well, she brought it all on herself...the way she would walk down the hall swinging her purse. (Not exact words, but that's really what he said!)

    I'm so glad you enjoyed this book, Ana! Now I really need to get around to reading it one of these days. *hangs head in shame*

  7. I would love to read this book! I remember learning about Rosalind in bio last year, and being both impressed by her discoveries and disgusted by her treatment. I cannot believe people used to view women like this back then... especially in such a field as science.

  8. Oh, how the fact that she was treated so poorly because of her gender angers me! I'm glad times have changed, but I'm sure some of that still goes on. The book sounds fascinating.

  9. Oh, I have to read this book! I remember watching BBC's 'Life Story' ('The Race for the Double Helix'), a film based on this book starring Juliet Stevenson and Jeff Goldblum, I think, in biology class at school and feeling so angry about the injustice she suffered. Similar to what happened to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astronomer, although she's gone on to have a very illustrious career.

  10. This sounds like the kind of book I'd love.

  11. Grrr...just makes my blood boil to read your revealing review. I'm sure this happened way more than we really want to know. I'm intrigued with stories like this. Makes you wish you travel back in time and defend her honor.

  12. That is just so damn sad and frustrating!! And angering!! Though the book sounds incredible and fascinating. The injustice done to women in the field of science is just so disgusting. It still continues to be such a man's field and it's just horrible. I see it all the time with the one female psychiatrist we have on staff at our hospital...even the patients have little respect for her and she's an amazing doctor. Thanks for this great review, Ana!

  13. Wow, that passage you pulled about Princeton women not even being allowed in the physics BUILDING is pretty amazing! I never knew it was more strongly sexist or ghettoized than other areas of scientific study (though, maybe it wasn't!).

    As other commenters have said, this book sounds fascinating and infuriating. Thanks for the great review.

  14. I'm definitely going to have to read this one. The Double Helix is one of my favorites but, of course, it's not the whole story! Poor Rosalind.

  15. Marieke: Exactly. The disbelief just baffles me.

    Jessica: Yes, it really is. At least she went on to have a fulfilling career at Birkberk. But what a pity she died so young.

    Clare: Apparently even Francis Crick was really upset with what Watson did. I guess it's what Brenda Maddox said... the story needed a villain, and so he used her.

    Amy, I really think you'd love it!

    Zibilee: Because I already knew the basics of the story I didn't experience that original gut reaction again, but there's definitely a lot here that's infuriating. It's such a great book, though!

    Debi: I'll definitely look for it! And yeah, how dare she swing her purse! Definitely asking for it :|

    Emidy: Sadly I think it still happens, though hopefully not to such a blatant extent :\

    Kathy: Yes, exactly. The saddest thing of all is that even today people don't remember her as she deserves to be remembered.

    Sakura: The book actually mentioned that film - apparently her family and friends felt that it helped correct the injustice of Watson's portrayal, but it still didn't quite acknowledge what a great scientist she was. And it mentioned Jocelyn Bell Burnell - I'd love to read more about her.

    Iris, I think you would!

    Sandy: I think it does too, yes :\ We can't change history, but hopefully books like this one help a little bit.

    Chris: The book is great - you'd love it for sure! And that's horrible that you see that at your hospital. Psychiatry is probably one of the areas where the male to female ratio is more balanced, and yet it still happens.

    Emily: Reading that literally made my chin drop. Maddox then goes on to tell an anecdote about a female foreign professor of physics who visited Princeton and had to be snuck in at night!

    Kristen: The Double Helix does sound like a great read, even if you have to take it with a grain of salt!

  16. One of my heros, E. O. Wilson, who worked at Harvard with Jim Wilson, called him "the most unpleasant human being I'd ever met". The irony is that if he didn't write The Double Helix, Rosalind's story might have been much more obscure...and now nobody might know that he and Crick stole her data. We can at least take some joy in the fact that Wilson finally lost his job for running his incredibly big mouth.
    Great review...I gotta read this!

  17. Ugh, I hate it when people write books and deliberately trash the characters of people they've been friends with. (I am mentally cutting my eyes at Lord Alfred Douglas right now.) So mean.

    I am constantly being shocked by the backwardness of universities. The place where I'm interning now, which is a fancy liberal university, didn't admit women as students until the late 1960s. Absolutely blows my mind.

  18. On to the wishlist it goes! (Especially considering the problems with women and science even today, I think it's good to know the history.) Also, Watson is obviously a tool, and thus I don't feel bad about not having Double Helix on my wishlist. lol

  19. I'm so glad you read this! I loved this book, and think it's so important to know about, since everyone seems to know Watson and Crick!

  20. James Watson is one of those people that I wish I didn't know so much about. We had to read The Double Helix in high school, and he was so egotistical in it. And now, even though he was a scientist who helped discover DNA, he is such a horrible racist bastard (pardon the word, but it's fitting), so it seems to me he can't even really know THAT much about DNA if he says the things that he does.

    I think I'd much prefer Rosalind Franklin's account of the period, and I am glad that people are beginning to give her the justice she's due. There is actually a medical school in Illinois named after her, if that is any consolation :-)

  21. Wonderful review Ana! It is extremely sad what Watson did - stealing someone else's research / data and then justifying it. And the kind of comments he has made in his book on Rosalind Franklin - very sad! Rosalind Franklin reminds me of Lise Meitner, who didn't get credit when Otto Hahn won the Nobel prize, because she was a woman and she was Jewish. It is extremely sad when one thinks of those days - the blood absolutely boils! Your review also reminded me of the movie 'Proof'. Have you seen it? It is about a mathematician and his daughter, and the daughter discovers the solution to a famous unsolved problem in mathematics and people doubt it because she is a woman and she is not formally trained and feel that she was passing her dad's findings as her own.

  22. editor pointed out that it was Watson who lost his job for his big mouth, not Wilson. Wilson good...Watson's complicated...

  23. James Watson was an odd bird and definitely an example of the fact that wisdom doesn't always accompany academic brilliance. Some of his statements suggest that he was a believer in eugenics. It gives one images of Nazism. Very depressing.

    Franklin has always intrigued me, partly because of her work on DNA and partly because she was discredited by her male colleagues. I learned more about her from reading your review, and I want to get my hands on this book. Thanks!

  24. This book sounds so good! Thank you for bringing it to our attention, it's going on my to-read list for sure.

  25. Nymeth, how DO you do it?! I was just chasing a link-stream and found an unrelated remark about Ms. Franklin and was thus dashing off to find a book - and wala! You review it THIS WEEK. wonderful!!

  26. It's interesting to me, the story of Ms Franklin and of 'The Double Helix' because it shows that the scientific community's work has never been able to completely disentangle itself to produce only science - I was originally going to say there is much in science that counteracts fact, but it isn't science that's at fault, it's scientists, and the public that consumes what they produce. Nor is it every scientist, and I would say more than likely that scientists now are a bit ahead of the general public in some ways than others. I notice the same thing on the news - any study that says anything whatsoever about weight loss, for instance, no matter how flimsy or exploratory, will be featured on the n ightly news, here. But a study on, say, malaria? Not so much. Which goes back of course and manifests in what we encourage or reward, what we fund, etc., as a society. We have this natural need to think of scientists the same way we think of saints and war heroes - and this encourages scientists sometimes to act in very unprofessional, counterproductive, anti-scientific ways. Not that I know how to untease that knot, though.

  27. Rich: I think Wilson summed it up very nicely ;) And you're right; there's quite a bit of irony there. At least he did bring her story to the attention of more people. (Don't worry about the Wilson/Watson thing... that's totally something I'd to too :P)

    Jenny: Sometimes it really sinks in how very RECENT all this stuff is. It's pretty horrifying :\

    Eva: Yes, exactly! I love books like this because they help me contextualise the present.

    Jill: It absolutely is!

    Aarti: I didn't know he was racist too, though it doesn't really surprise me to hear it :\ It does make you wonder how much he can know. I guess he got lost in the details of molecular biology and lost sight of the big picture. Not that that excuses it, of course!

    Vishy: The book mentioned Lise Meitner too, if I'm not mistaken. It's so upsetting that these things have happened again and again :\ I haven't see Proof, but I very much want to now!

    Stephanie: *shudders* I know that a belief in eugenics was very common in the early 20th century, but he was working *after* WW2, which somehow makes it worse.

    Emily Jane: You're most welcome, and I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Care: I knew you'd be looking for this this week because Copley keeps me informed of all your doings and intentions - and yes, far in advance, because he can SEE THE FUTURE. Mwahahahahahhaha ;)

    Jason: I see what you mean, but I'd probably say that those are two separate issues - each as difficult to untangle as the other, of course. There's the fact that as reliable as the scientific method may be, it's put into practice by humans who'll make mistakes, bring their biases and personal relationships into the equation, etc. There are ways to safeguard it from that, but of course none are infallible. Then there's the matter of how science is portrayed by the media, what studies get attention, etc., which is definitely a huge mess. I loved Ben Goldacre's Bad Science exactly because it dealt with all that so well. As he says, one of the main issues is that the media miseducate people to think that scientific discoveries are sudden breakthroughs, when most of the daily (and hugely important) work consists of baby steps that pave the way for those breakthroughs. It's interesting to think of this in terms of Watson and Crick's breakthrough versus Franklin's work, which paved the way and was thought of as less important.

  28. I'm so sad to admit that I have never heard of her before. I'm so grateful to your blog for always bringing things to my attention and helping to fill in the gaps of my dismal (it seems at times) education.

  29. This book has been on my TBR for ages, but I've been a little afraid to read it as I feel so angry just thinking of her situation I wasn't sure I'd be up to the certain gnashing of teeth I'd experience! Still, you give it such a thorough review that I must get to it sooner rather than later, and make sure I know all the facts. I love books about science & women's contributions.

  30. I'm happy to have known of this story, though it's usually little more than a side note in text books. This sounds like a really in-depth approach. I'd love to read it. If I was really good at science, I might've gone into genetics, but since I'm only ok at science, it never seemed like a good idea. I love genetics though!

  31. What?! Copley is SPYING on me?! too funny.

  32. Kathleen: I feel like my own education is dismal all the time, so you're not alone :P I'm glad to have brought Franklin to your attention!

    Melanie: There are infuriating parts, of Maddox also makes it a celebration of Franklin's life and everything she achieved, which I thought was a great approach.

    J.T. Oldfield: I find genetics fascinating too! And I hope you'll enjoy the book!

    Care: He likes to pretend he's a character in a spy thriller :P

  33. Does the author mention physics departments as an aside, or is she also describing Ms. Franklin's work as being physics related? The DNA work is definitely biology.

    I was a biology major in college, and when one of my teachers mentioned "The Double Helix" and Rosalind Franklin's unfortunate story, I read the book. I still have it, so I skimmed through the back because I seemed to recall that Watson basically apologized for the cavalier attitude that he and Crick had towards her and her work.

    Remembering that she was only 37 when she died, is sad because if she had lived longer she could have (hopefully) overcome the male attitudes.

    Watson was only 25 when the structure of DNA was discovered, so he was definitely immature -- and perhaps still hadn't outgrown his general attitude, based on comments here?

    I'm definitely adding Maddox's book to my TBR list!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.