Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Maddox, Brenda

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol
  • Date of entry: Jan-23-2012
  • Last revised: Jan-20-2012


Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is the biography of the scientist whose research James Watson and Francis Crick needed to elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule.  Even though the discovery has had profound implications for modern medicine, Franklin's contribution to it almost remained obscure.

In 1968 Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) became visible to the world beyond a small circle of scientists when Watson published The Double Helix (1968), his "personal account" of puzzling out DNA.  If not for Watson's self-incriminating candor about stealing glances at Franklin's research, we might not know how crucial her lucid x-ray diffractions of hydrated DNA were to him and Francis Crick.  However, the account that indirectly acknowledged Franklin's contribution to their work represented her in a patronizing caricature.  Since ovarian cancer took her life a decade before Watson's memoir appeared, others have been left to respond to his version of the DNA story and representation of his female colleague.  Among Franklin's defenders, Brenda Maddox offers the most complete and insightful restoration of the scientist, her research, and her life. 

Maddox's biography draws from not only the many scientific archives and personal papers of scientists Franklin worked with in England, Europe, and America, but also from previously undisclosed letters written by Franklin, her friends, and her family.  Maddox also interviewed Franklin's relatives.  Doing so allowed her to position Franklin's life within the history of her close, extended Anglo-Jewish family, generations of wealthy London publishers and bankers who experienced discrimination.  This history does more than belie some of Watson's hasty assumptions about Franklin's background.  It creates a biography of a complex woman who negotiated biases as a citizen and a scientist.     

The biography is divided into three parts.  The first narrates the story of Franklin's childhood, rigorous education, and successful career before accepting the fateful research post at King's College, London.  She's known for thinking skeptically and working mathematically.  Yet early on she showed an aptitude for three-dimensional thinking and for understanding crystalline structures.   As an undergraduate at Cambridge she speculated about a "'Geometrical basis for inheritance'" (56).

The second section concentrates on the 27 months at King's when she worked uneasily with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her revelatory x-rays of DNA to Watson.   This balanced account of a controversial episode in the history of science offers evidence that Franklin was close to drawing the same conclusion about the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick rushed into print.  This section also accessibly explains the molecular biology of her day and the painstaking physical and intellectual intricacies of making and interpreting x-rays of crystalline molecules. 

The third section reminds us that Franklin had a very productive, though short career after leaving DNA to others.  She directed research programs for the study of plant viruses, and she investigated the polio virus shortly before she died.  Respected scientists, including Crick, praised her research.   Many, unlike Wilkins, liked working with her.  More than 40 years after viewing what's known as Franklin's Photograph 51, Watson publicly acknowledged that seeing it "'was the key event'" in understanding the geometry of DNA (316).  (See the note on Photo 51 below.)        


The relationship between the research lab and the clinic that marks modern medicine should make us curious about the workings of medical science and the way stories are told about that work.  The story of DNA research suggests that the particular narrative framing of episodes in science influence both public and scientific perceptions about the value of its products.  Watson created an auspicious narrative that represents his work with DNA as an adventurous race to discover the secret of life:  a master molecule that directs life's entire operations.  Maddox's biography of Franklin advances another claim, one suggested by aggregate accounts-histories, memoirs, essays, private writings, biographies-concerning DNA research.  Overall, other researchers did not believe that they were participating in a race, no less one to discover the totalizing secret of life.  But the scientist who promoted that belief plotted the first memorable story about DNA, influencing our understanding of the meaning of the molecule and those who worked on it. 

Maddox's excellent biography of Franklin suggests that she merits a story in her own right, one that should be told because of her achievements and the historic/medical significance of the research she participated in.  Even though Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is motivated to defend Franklin, it offers more than a corrective.  More fully documented than Anne Sayre's heartfelt pioneering biography of her friend (Rosalind Franklin and DNA, 1975), Maddox's biography makes important contributions to the history of modern medical science and to studies of gender, the culture of science, and scientific processes. 


Note:  Maddox's biography was a significant source for the NOVA documentary "The Secret of Photo 51," originally broadcast in 2003.  PBS maintains an informative website that further explains the science and circumstances that led to the elucidation of the DNA molecule: See especially the section "Anatomy of Photo 51," which engagingly explains how to view that famous photo and understand how it offered such valuable information to Watson. 



Place Published

United Kingdom



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