Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
Hopefully we all know by now that men didn’t do everything of note in science, no matter what a lot of the popular history might suggest. What I would also like to believe is that you know that without the research efforts of Rosalind Franklin the basic structures underlying DNA would not have been ‘discovered’ by James Watson and Francis Crick.
Of course, I’d also like to believe in dragons.
For those of you that this is old hat to and you’ve read numerous biographies and research papers by Rosalind Franklin and are steeped in the social justice movements as they relate to academia, you might be tempted to skip this book. But don’t.
This book remains a good read because in many ways the topics discussed in this book: women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), non-WASP and underrepresented groups, and the struggle for research funding and a place in the hierarchy of higher education is still a very real problem. Sure most schools can’t get away with not allowing female faculty ‘just because’ anymore, but if you think that stops institutions from bullying or being bullied into letting go of faculty because of their status or views as minority, you aren’t paying attention.
This book covers both the good and the bad about Franklin. She was a brilliant researcher with a personality that was dedicated to science and not the politics associated with garnering research funds and political allies in a turbulent academic environment. You get a chance to explore her time researching carbon structure in France and how this work helped launch her thoughts on the structure of DNA and how best to tease it out. We sit side-by-side as she stretches the limits of science and technology to better understand the fundamental structures of the world. She was a wonderful friend and passionate person in areas outside of the lab as we see from her time in Paris and visits to the United States. But she wasn’t always easy to get along with and she didn’t share her methods or research space well with many others even when overtures were made, but if anything this doesn’t separate her from her colleagues because it is a trait that she shared with many researchers.
The Dark Lady doesn’t just apply to her Judaism, or her reported moodiness, or the fact that her work was overshadowed by Watson and Crick’s letter to Nature that was the foundation of their Nobel Prize, which was based on ‘Photo 51’ a photo taken in Franklin’s lab using techniques and equipment she helped design and struggled to get funded. The moniker applies to the fact that all of these things are true of her. She was more than ‘Photo 51’ and it is a shame she died so young, but don’t think this was the sum of her contributions to science she also work on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus and on polio.
For those of you that a book is too long for TLDR.