Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

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9780060985080: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

The untold story of the woman who helped to make one of humanity’s greatest discoveries – DNA – but who was never given credit for doing so.

'Our dark lady is leaving us next week'; on 7 March 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King's College, London, wrote to Francis Crick at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge to say that as soon as his obstructive female colleague was gone from King's, he, Crick, and James Watson, a young American working with Crick, could go full speed ahead with solving the structure of the DNA molecule that lies in every gene. Not long after, the pair whose names will be forever linked announced to the world that they had discovered the secret of life.
But could Crick and Watson have done it without the 'dark lady'? In two years at King's, Franklin had made major contributions to the understanding of DNA. She established its existence in two forms, she worked out the position of the phosphorous atoms in its backbone. Most crucially, using X-ray techniques which may have contributed significantly to her later death from cancer at the tragically young age of 37, she had taken beautiful photographs of the patterns of DNA.
This is the extraordinarily powerful story of Rosalind Franklin, told by one of our greatest biographers; the single-minded young scientist whose contribution to arguably the most significant discovery of all time went unrecognized, elbowed aside in the rush for glory, and who died too young to recover her claim to some of that reputation, a woman who was not the wife of anybody and who is a myth in the making. Like a medieval saint, Franklin looms larger as she recedes in time. She has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology. This will be a full and balanced biography, that will examine Franklin's abruptness and tempestuousness, her loneliness and her relationships, the powerful family from which she sprang and the uniqueness of the work in which she was engaged. It is a vivid portrait, in sum, of a gifted young woman drawn against a background of women's education, Anglo-Jewry and the greatest scientific discovery of the century.

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In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin's data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery.

Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

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Brenda Maddox's Rosalind Franklin: the Dark Lady of DNA is the "untold" story of the scientist whose work was paramount in the discovery of the double helix. In 1953 scientist Francis Crick famously burst through the doors of a Cambridge pub to announce that he and his colleague James Watson had discovered the secret of life. He and Watson really had discovered something extraordinary--the structure of DNA. Nine years later the two of them, together with Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. The ghost at the Nobel feast in 1962 was Rosalind Franklin, who had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 four years earlier. Franklin was an exceptionally gifted scientist whose work had been central to the unravelling of the problem of the structure of DNA. Without it the insights of Crick and Watson would not have been possible.

In recent years Rosalind Franklin has become a kind of feminist icon, "the Sylvia Plath of science", as one commentator has called her. The manifest unfairness of her exclusion from the glory attached to what may be the most important scientific discovery of the second half of the 20th century was underlined by the bitchy and misogynist portrait of her in Watson's bestselling book The Double Helix. Brenda Maddox, in her biography, attempts to present a balanced portrait of Franklin and of the assorted giant male egos with whom she came into contact. She acknowledges that Franklin was a spiky personality who not only did not suffer fools gladly but did not suffer them at all. She also emphasises her capacity for friendship, her tangled relationships with her multi-talented and demanding family, her joy in travel and the range of the scientific work she accomplished in her short life. After this biography it will no longer be possible to confine Rosalind Franklin's complex personality within either the straitjackets of Watson's condescension or feminist idolatry. --Nick Rennison

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