Rosalind Franklin: honour regained

A fictionalised biography of Rosalind Franklin – whose work on DNA was highjacked by others – engages Angela Cobbinah

Thursday, 17th February — By Angela Cobbinah

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin, unsung heroine of the discovery of the structure of DNA

THE opening of the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross in 2016 reignited the lingering controversy over Rosalind Franklin, who paved the way for Crick’s historic DNA discovery but missed out on the honours.

The biophysicist tragically died from cancer at the age of 37 and it has been left to others to set the record straight, with Marie Benedict the latest to weigh in with her engaging fictionalised biography.

The US author has made a name for herself rescuing female heroes from oblivion, among them Mileva Marić, Einstein’s first wife. In The Other Einstein, the protagonist’s promising career in physics is derailed by a shotgun marriage, having three children, then dumping her philandering husband to become a struggling single mum.

In Her Hidden Genius, the single-minded Franklin decides early on that marriage and career don’t match and remains resolutely unattached. But she goes on to find herself up against the entire male-dominated scientific establishment where the race is on to discover the structure of DNA.

Franklin was ahead of the pack in her research but, unbeknown to her, Francis Crick and his collaborator James Watson used her unpublished data – passed on to them by her colleague Maurice Wilkins – to build a model of the DNA molecule. All three were awarded the Nobel Prize for this in 1962 but Franklin’s contribution went unacknowledged.

To make matters worse, Watson later published a self-congratulatory memoir in which he berated Franklin on a number of points, from not wearing lipstick to being unable to interpret her own data. His outrageous comments prompted Franklin’s friend, Anne Sayres, to mount a rebuttal in Rosalind Franklin and DNA in 1975. It is this and other biographies, interviews with family and colleagues, as well as Franklin’s own papers that inform Benedict’s novel.

Written in the first person narrative in a breezy but spare style, we first meet Franklin at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’État in Paris where she becomes noted for her skills in X-ray crystallography. Delighting in the camaraderie and open-mindedness of an institution that allows female scientists to flourish, another side of the indefatigable researcher emerges as she joins her colleagues on restaurant outings and mountain treks and falls in love with her boss.

That relationship can go nowhere as he is married and it is partly due to this that she decides to swap the Seine for the Strand and join the Biophysics Research Unit at King’s College in 1951. One can almost feel the drabness of post-war London close in around her as she begins her work in a dour establishment noted for the absence of female scientists.

Our heroine soon has to watch her back. Late one night, she catches Watson snooping around her lab. Later it transpires that Wilkins, who is furious that she has been given a bigger role than him in DNA research, has shown Crick and Watson her groundbreaking X-ray photo of DNA that enables them to deduce its correct chemical structure.

Far from being a shrinking violet, Franklin comes across as a satisfyingly combative figure who does not hold back about having two years’ hard work hi-jacked. However, she sees no point in wallowing in anger. “My future – and my legacy, I hope – lie ahead of me. I must put the misfortune of King’s in my past,” she tells her cousin Ursula, before going off to undertake equally cutting edge research into viruses at Birkbeck College.

Benedict hints that Franklin’s disregard of monitoring measures to ensure safe radiation levels while using X-rays was responsible for the ovarian cancer that she succumbed to in 1958. She simply did not want anything to slow down her work.

It is not all doom and gloom, though. Benedict describes Franklin’s happy times away from the office, how she would enjoy entertaining her close network of friends, her love of mountain climbing, and the importance her large family played in her life.

As for Crick, he partly redeemed himself by making overtures to his erstwhile rival, even accompanying her on a post-conference tour in Spain with his wife, motivated, Franklin speculates, by guilt.

Her Hidden Genius. By Marie Benedict. Sourcebooks Landmark, £16.99

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