Brenda Maddox's new book, "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA," is the first comprehensive biography of a scientist who history and the scientific community have until now kept firmly in the background.
Rosalind Franklin was the physical chemist whose X-ray crystallographic images of DNA strands allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to take the final intellectual leap toward determining the structure of the DNA molecule is a double helix. Not only did Watson and Crick use Franklin's images without her permission, but they also never properly acknowledged her role in the papers reporting their discovery. In fact, Watson in his book "The Double Helix" described Franklin as "too unimaginative" to realize the structure of DNA for herself, neglecting to mention that later scholars have determined Franklin was, at most, "two steps" away from the final answer.
Maddox's biography seeks to examine Franklin's life in order to put into perspective her later treatment by Watson, Crick and her colleagues at King's College in London.
Maddox describes the uneasy and at times tempestuous relationship Franklin maintained with her colleague Maurice Wilkins. It was Wilkins who eventually would provide Franklin's X-ray images to Watson and Crick without her knowledge or her permission.
Maddox does an excellent job of explaining the science of Rosalind Franklin's work in terms that are easily understood. The structure of DNA was an incredibly important scientific question, because it held the answers to the way genetic inheritance works. As the scientist Linus Pauling said in his paper for the National Academy of Sciences describing his own (incorrect) theories on the structure of DNA: "An understanding of the nucleic acids should be of value in the effort to understand the fundamental phenomena of life."
Franklin's X-ray photographs of the DNA molecule were vital to understanding its structure and she was one of the few people in the world with the experimental skill to take clear photographs at such a small scale. As Maddox relates in her book: "Rosalind's skill in chemical preparation and X-ray analysis ... had given the first clear picture in the form in which the molecule opens up to replicate itself."
Maddox's biography provides evidence that not only could Watson and Crick not have developed their model without Franklin's work, but also, through quotes from Franklin's own scientific notebooks and interviews with Franklin's colleagues, that Franklin had been contemplating the possibility of a helical structure for DNA for much of the time she was working on this problem. Far from being "too unimaginative" to make the intellectual leap, Franklin indeed was quite close to solving the structure of DNA herself.
Rosalind Franklin's life ended prematurely when she succumbed to ovarian cancer at age 37. Because the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, she did not receive equal billing with Watson, Crick and Wilkins when they won the prestigious award in 1962.
This remarkable woman -- who decided at age 15 she wanted to be a scientist -- seemed doomed to fade quietly away in the history books of scientific achievement. Lucky for us, we have Maddox's excellent biography, which makes a significant first step toward balancing the scales for the so-called "Dark Lady of DNA." It is a book that should be of interest to anyone fascinated with science, the scientific establishment and the role of women in this discipline.
("Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA," by Brenda Maddox. HarperCollins, October 2002, $29.95)