Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

New York
, 2001. $29.95 (380 pp.). ISBN 0-06-018407-8

In 1951, the race to publish the structure of DNA was heating up with the fanaticism apropos of an athletic contest. That race ended in 1953, when Rosalind Franklin’s unpublished measurements of the crucial distances in the DNA molecule were provided without her knowledge to James Watson and Francis Crick, enabling them to build a model of DNA. Many scientists think Franklin deserved to share the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for determining the structure of DNA. She had died four years earlier at the age of 37, and the prize is never awarded posthumously.

Brenda Maddox’s Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is a meticulous study of a brilliant scientist and a chronology of an epochal scientific adventure. Maddox is a science journalist, an editor for the Economist. No details of Franklin’s personal or scientific life escaped her. Maddox interviewed scientists, talked with Franklin’s relatives, and read her personal and scientific correspondence. Maddox is a prize-winning biographer; Franklin was a perfectionist. The biographer and her subject are well matched.

My introduction to Rosalind Franklin was through reading James Watson’s The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968). Watson’s now infamous personal descriptions of her are a well-remembered chapter in scientific history. It is difficult to read any biography of Franklin dispassionately. The first biography of Franklin, Rosalind Franklin and DNA (W. W. Norton, 1975), was by her personal friend Anne Sayre. Maddox did not know Franklin, and wrote with a 44-year perspective. The success of Maddox’s biography is that its extensive scholarly detail eases the reader into objectivity.

Maddox devotes four chapters to Franklin’s childhood and formal education. From her family life, Franklin learned to trust her judgments, live modestly, and scorn self-indulgence. She understood her capabilities and was forthright about speaking up, an unexpected and perhaps unwelcome trait for a female scientist.

At the age of 21, Franklin started her research on crystalline materials in support of an important wartime project. Coal was used in gas masks during World War II, and Franklin investigated why some kinds of coal are more impervious than other kinds to gas and water. Because of her expertise on “holes in coal,” in 1947 Jacques Mehring invited her to join the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat in Paris. In Mehring’s lab, she latched onto x-ray crystallography and used it to study disordered carbon crystals. In chapters 5 and 6, Maddox describes Franklin in Paris as “a woman of the Left Bank”—happy, beautiful, successful, and valued by colleagues.

Franklin’s success landed her at King’s College, London, in 1951, with a fellowship to study proteins in solution and in dehydrated forms. Before leaving Paris, she carefully designed the apparatus she would need. Her major concern was to control the humidity and temperature of the samples. When she arrived at King’s College, the focus of the project changed from protein solutions to biological fibers, particularly DNA. Control of humidity was a serious issue, because DNA fibers lengthen as they hydrate, and the motion blurs the photographs. Franklin was already familiar with such problems through her work with crystalline forms of coal.

Although scientifically fortuitous, the move to King’s College carried the seeds of dissent. The lab director, John Turton Randall, informed Franklin by letter that only she, Ray Gosling (a graduate student), and an assistant would be working on her project. However, Randall was already studying DNA fibers with Maurice Wilkins. Randall and Wilkins needed Franklin’s x-ray diffraction experience, but offered her only a three-year fellowship, with neither rank nor academic appointment. Understandably, the laboratory relations between Franklin and Wilkins were uncomfortable.

In nearby Cambridge, investigators at the Cavendish laboratory were also using x-ray diffraction to examine complex biological molecules. Also at Cambridge was Francis Crick, a PhD student, who was joined by James Watson in 1951. Watson and Crick undertook to find the structure of DNA by model building. Naturally, they needed measurements of DNA’s crystalline parameters, but lacked the experimental technique and resources. In Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix (Knopf, 2002, p. 8), Watson explains: “I hoped to expand the attention of the unit to DNA … once I had learned x-ray diffraction techniques.” Adding to that hurdle, Lawrence Bragg, head of the laboratory, told Watson and Crick to cease work on DNA because British scientific politics gave priority to Randall’s group.

Meanwhile, Franklin labored intensely in a hostile atmosphere. (Even Watson, on p. 20 of The Double Helix, admitted that at King’s, “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.”) Her x-ray photographs and laborious calculations “suggested a helical structure … with the phosphate groups on the outside.” She discovered the B (wet) form of DNA, and was the first to photograph it and to measure the spacing between the bases and the cylindrical repeat distance. She wanted to delay her final decision about the structure until she and Gosling were completely convinced by the data. However, without her or Gosling’s knowledge, Wilkins showed Watson and Crick the crucial x-ray photograph of the B form and gave them the crystalline parameters she had laboriously calculated. The 25 April 1953 issue of Nature carried three papers on the subject: by Watson and Crick; by Wilkins, Alec Stokes, and Herbert Wilson; and by Franklin and Gosling.

Franklin continued her scientific career at Birkbeck College, where she tackled the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, a subject more challenging than DNA. In his 1982 Nobel lecture, Aaron Klug—her closest collaborator and friend—acknowledged her contribution to his own work on molecular structure.

Maddox brings out one fact not generally known: The Double Helix was originally scheduled to be published by Harvard University Press. The outcry from eminent scientists and from Franklin’s family was so intense that Harvard’s board of overseers asked the press to drop the book. Atheneum later published it.

Maddox’s mastery of historical detail gives us a definitive portrait of this warm and brilliant scientist and represents the science in an accurate and approachable way.

Eugenie Vorburger Mielczarekis emeritus professor of physics at George Mason University. She has worked in materials science and biological physics and is coauthor of Iron, Nature’s Universal Element (Rutgers U. Press, 2000).