Lies in the lab

 

Rosalind Franklin's name is freighted with meaning, especially for women scientists. Mary Mulvihill reviews Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

For Franklin was the young woman who played a crucial role in the 1953 discovery of DNA's double helix, but she was unfairly treated, her work used without her permission, and she herself sidelined as a frigid frump.

Franklin got no credit when, in 1962, Jim Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins, a colleague of Franklin's at King's College London, were awarded the Nobel prize.

But by then she was four years dead, killed at 37 by cancer which, tragically, was probably triggered by the radiation she employed as an x-ray crystallographer: dedicated to getting the best possible images, Franklin dispensed with protective lead aprons.

Franklin's popular image owes much to The Double Helix (1968), Jim Watson's notoriously racy account of the DNA work. Watson painted her as uncooperative, hoarding crucial information which, it was suggested, she neither understood nor appreciated, and unattractive - if only she would remove her spectacles and do something with her hair! The double helix controversy sadly overshadowed Franklin's work as one of the world's best crystallographers and as an international expert on the structure of coal, who was making major contributions to our understanding of the structure of viruses when cancer struck her.

Brenda Maddox, the award-winning biographer of Nora Barnacle and D. H. Lawrence, now sets the record straight with this sympathetic yet balanced account of Franklin's life and work (all the science is explained simply). Given full access to personal letters, and the co-operation of friends, family and colleagues (including Watson, Crick and Wilkins), she brings Rosalind to life, devoid of caricature.

Franklin was born in 1920, to a well-to-do London-Jewish family with banking and publishing businesses. Forthright, argumentative and uncompromising, she determined from a young age to be a scientist.

It is salutary to be reminded what women faced then: Cambridge University, where Franklin attended Newnham College, did not award degrees to women until 1948; the King's College senior common room, where researchers met and "networked", was open to men only; and women's wages were lower. Women scientists were still rare, and more harshly judged than their male counterparts.

Franklin chose the challenging field of crystallography - taking x-ray photographs of crystals and, from the patterns, calculating the positions of the atoms, and thus a chemical's structure. Preparing good quality crystals, and maintaining them during the long exposures required, took great skill. But Rosalind Franklin had it.

She spent the late 1940s happily in Paris studying the structure of coal - industrially important in the post-war years - then two unhappy years at King's College working on DNA.

Franklin discovered there are two crystalline forms of DNA; crucially, where others took blurred photos of both mixed, Franklin achieved sharp images of each separately. But she and her erstwhile colleague Maurice Wilkins soon antagonised each other. Then Wilkins, who dubbed her "the dark lady", broke ranks, sharing her data and photographs with Watson and Crick at Cambridge.

Maddox suggests that Franklin bore no grudge against the trio, whereas Watson was plagued by guilt - caricaturing Franklin as "Rosy the witch" was his way of justifying their actions.

Only in recent years have Crick and Watson publicly acknowledged that without her photographs, they might never have found the double helix.

Notebooks of Franklin's, discovered in 1974, reveal she was probably as close as they were to the solution. But so too were others - helices were "in the air" then.

In March 1953, Franklin moved to more supportive surroundings at Birkbeck College. There, under the colourful Irish scientist JD Bernal, she began investigating the structure of viruses, and entered into friendly collaboration with Watson and Crick. Much good work was cut short when she took ill, though one of her team, Aaron Klug, later won a Nobel in 1982.

Some say Franklin should have won a Nobel too. But as Maddox reminds us, the prizes are never awarded posthumously, and others were also overlooked: notably Oswald Avery, who proved that DNA was the genetic material, and Jerry Donohue, who told Watson and Crick which chemical structures to use.

It is right, however, to criticise the Nobel awards: they canonise and reward the few (mostly men), giving winners an international stage and political clout; the prizes are limited to three people, yet scientific research now is mostly done by big teams; and the old boys' network rules: surviving laureates can influence nominations, and Wilkins's name was added in 1962 after much backstage canvassing.

Franklin has won belated recognition: her portrait hangs in London's National Portrait Gallery, alongside Watson, Crick and Wilkins; King's College recently opened the Franklin-Wilkins Building; and now this readable biography.

Mary Mulvihill, a science writer and former research geneticist, was a founder and the first chairperson of the association for Women in Science & Technology

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. By Brenda Maddox. HarperCollins, 380 pp. £20 sterling