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The unsung woman behind a Nobel Prize

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox, HarperCollins: 400 pp., $29.95

November 03, 2002|Margaret Wertheim | Margaret Wertheim is the author of "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet."

The philosopher of science Evelyn Fox Keller once remarked that if a woman scientist hopes to win a Nobel Prize, she had better plan on living a very long time. Rosalind Franklin, unwisely, died at 37, putting her out of the running when, four years later, her colleague Maurice Wilkins, along with James Watson and Francis Crick, was awarded a Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA. Franklin's impeccable X-ray photographs provided the data on which Watson and Crick built their ideas, and Franklin herself was already on track to deciphering DNA. Few experts today doubt that her name also should be on the Nobel roster.

Her death, however, saved the Swedish Academy of Sciences from a sticky situation, for Nobel rules stipulate that each award can be shared by only three people. Franklin had a prickly relationship with all three men, who coveted her data but viewed her as a bluestockinged harridan. Moreover, as the only woman among the four, her chances for a nomination were probably poor, even had she lived. In the history of the Nobels, only 10 women have been honored with one of the science prizes, of which there are three categories: medicine or physiology, physics, and chemistry. Rosalind Franklin would not have been the first to suffer from Nobel chauvinism. Fortunately for the academy, she was dead, and so the problem never arose.

April 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of Watson and Crick's momentous announcement that DNA is a tightly coiled helical ladder whose rungs encode the language of life. Big celebrations are being planned, and the three laureates will no doubt be lauded in style. Though absent from the proceedings, I suspect that Franklin's spirit will be much invoked by all parties, as eager to assuage their own sense of guilt as to pay homage to this singular woman. Which is to say that half a century and a feminist revolution later, Rosalind Franklin is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Not the least of her tributes, and surely not the last, is Brenda Maddox's cannily timed biography.

Happily for readers, Maddox eschews the hagiographic path. In her opening pages, she notes that Franklin has often been presented as "the Sylvia Plath of biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male." This mythologizing, though "intended to be reparative," has, in Maddox's view, "done her no favors." Here Maddox aims to set the record straight with an account of a complex, determined and, yes, at times difficult woman.

Like many women scientists of the early 20th century, Franklin came from a Jewish family in which a love of learning was deeply ingrained. Her father was a London banker, but several nights a week he poured his own thwarted scientific interests into the Working Man's College, where he taught classes in magnetism, electricity and the history of the Great War. At the age of 12, Rosalind announced her intention of becoming a scientist. Nonetheless, and it is critical to understanding her, she always suffered from a sense that in her parents' eyes, her brothers came first. Beneath her apparent confidence, Rosalind Franklin was plagued by nagging self-doubt.

In 1938, Franklin was accepted to Cambridge University after topping the entrance examination in chemistry (she of course worried that she'd failed). Cambridge had admitted women to its classes since 1869, and Jews since 1871, but in the 1930s, the university still did not grant degrees to women. Like other female students of her day, Franklin received hers years after she graduated. Trained in physics and chemistry, she first made a name for herself as an expert on the microstructure of coal. That led to an interest in the emerging field of X-ray crystallography, at which she proved a dab hand, and in 1950 she was offered a job at Kings College in London to apply this technique to DNA.

So used are we to hearing about DNA's central role in the chemistry of life that it is hard to imagine this understanding was ever in doubt. But in the early '50s, many scientists thought proteins were the crucial molecules. Deoxyribonucleic acid was clearly important -- there were masses of the stuff in every cell nucleus -- but what did it do? One of the more radical concepts evolving at the time was the idea that the structure of an organic molecule might in some way determine its function. If scientists could work out the structure of DNA, perhaps they would gain an insight into what purpose it served. In the biophysics department at Kings College, J.T. Randall, an eminent physicist and British war hero, decided that DNA's structure was a problem worth solving, and he hired Franklin to do the job.

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