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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

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File under: righteous indignation

I just finished reading Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox, and I am irritated. Oh, no. It wasn’t the book. On the contrary, Maddox is a great writer and Franklin a fascinating subject. I’ve now got it in for James Watson and Francis Crick, the so-called discoverers of DNA.

(Watson’s 1968 autobiography, The Double Helix, gave Franklin the nickname “dark lady” in a disparaging comment, hence the subtitle of this biography).

Franklin’s photographs of DNA were called “among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,” but she never received much credit for the crucial role her photos played in the discovery of DNA’s helical structure. When the photos were shown, without her knowledge, to Watson, he thought they could possibly prove that DNA was a double helix, and published a paper stating so as quickly as he could. He won the Nobel Prize for his “discovery” in 1962 with Crick.

Franklin trained as a physical chemist at Cambridge, and had hesitated to publish this assertion without further supporting evidence. She was a well-respected and methodical researcher, published in all the best journals. Her refusal to jump to conclusions cost her the glory of the Nobel.

Born to well-off Jewish parents, she’d taken a position in Paris as soon as she graduated from university – the book argues that her sex and her personality were not the only things being held against her – a certain degree of anti-Semitism was inherent in English labs of the time. Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37, her vital contributions to research overlooked or, worse, downplayed by Watson, Crick and their allies. The “dark lady” was caricatured as a frigid, unfeeling automaton who didn’t play nicely with others, not the vibrant, intelligent person she was. Her early death no doubt prevented her from making a great many more contributions to the field.

As usual, the winners – in this case, the Nobel Prize winners – write the history. Read this book for more interesting details about the so-called “Sylvia Plath of science.”

This was published simultaneously on bitter-girl.com

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