Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Books

reviewed by Russell McNeil (edited by Ian Johnston)

Brenda Maddox’s
Rosalind Frankin:
The Dark Lady of DNA

Harper Collins Canada. 2002
ISBN 0060985089
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Sodium deoxyribose nucleate from calf thymus, Structure B, Photo 51, taken by Rosalind Franklin and R G Gosling, 2 May 1952, with Linus Pauling’s holographic annotations to the right of the photo.

Was Nobel laureate James D Watson fully aware that his The Double Helix, the now classic account of the discovery of DNA, would one day explode in his face? In the riveting epilogue to her recent biography of Rosalind Franklin, The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox revisits the genesis of Watson’s famous book. The central issue in this life of Franklin and in how history remembers her role in the discovery of DNA is Watson’s memorable but flagrantly disrespectful and dishonest characterization of her. Franklin was, of course, one of the four principal actors in that discovery, along with Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. The latter three received a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962. Franklin was ignored.

Maddox, in the newest contribution to this saga, describes Watson’s characterization of Franklin as, “the termagant who hoarded data she could not comprehend, treated men like naughty little boys and wore dresses even dowdier than those of the average English-woman,” and that is the unavoidable image of Franklin readers of The Double Helix remember. Maddox dismisses as “pious” and “faint praise” Watson’s later apologetic epilogue, where he limply describes Franklin as a “fine scientist,” and how “as a young man, he had not appreciated the difficulties of a woman making her way in a man’s world of science.”

What readers of The Double Helix might not know is that Watson was very much aware of the implications of his portrayal of Franklin. As Maddox reminds us, Harvard University Press refused to publish Watson’s book. In reviewing the draft of Watson’s manuscript, Harvard had required the written consent of all of the prominent figures mentioned. Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins objected strongly. In addition, “[Linus] Pauling condemned the portrayals of himself, his wife, his son, Francis Crick, Sir Lawrence Bragg and Rosalind Franklin.” Franklin could not defend herself. She died in 1958, age 37, at the peak of her career, from complications with ovarian cancer, ten years before Watson’s work was published.

The Dark Lady of DNA seeks to set the record straight. Rosalind Franklin was a important 20th-century scientist, whose role in the most important biological discovery of the 20th century has been occluded by distortions of the facts, professional marginalization, and an appalling failure of professional ethics. Yet Franklin was, by any professional standard, an important figure. She would have been considered an accomplished scientist irrespective of any involvement in the story of DNA. In a tribute to Franklin, J D Bernal, the esteemed crystallographer and scientific mentor to no less than three Nobel Laureates, said this: “She was already a recognized authority in industrial physicochemistry when she chose to abandon this work in favour of the far more difficult and more exciting fields of biophysics.” Later in the article Bernal describes Franklin’s work on DNA: “By the most ingenious experimental and mathematical techniques of X-ray analysis, she was able to verify and make more precise the illuminating hypothesis of Crick and Watson on the double spiral structure of this substance.”

Watson’s examination of Franklin’s famous ‘photograph 51’ was, by Watson’s own admission, the most critical element he needed along the path to DNA. That photograph came to Watson through Wilkins in an innocent enough way. It was not stolen or appropriated, as some allege. The problem is this: None of those players ever told Franklin that they had seen her photograph. She was never openly consulted or told about the importance of her photograph in their discovery. She went to her death never knowing the full story. That is what Maddox finds thoroughly appalling. To make matters worse, Watson and Crick and Wilkins were all in frequent contact with Franklin during the five years after the discovery of DNA. None of them had the courage to let her in on what must have felt like a dirty little secret. In The Double Helix, Watson labels Franklin as “anti-helical.” That’s the excuse he offers for not taking Franklin into his confidence about the photograph. But notes uncovered after her death, as Maddox reveals, demonstrate otherwise. Franklin was far from being “anti-helical.” She was careful. She needed better evidence.

The Dark Lady of DNA - book cover

The justifications Watson, Crick and Wilkins have offered for ignoring and isolating Rosalind Franklin have always revolved around the implication that she had no vision. The sequence of stages in the discovery of DNA required several so-called “eureka” moments. One of those moments described in The Double Helix was the discovery that the textbook structure of the unit cell that determined the physical relationships between the four DNA bases was wrong. Watson at the time was attempting to fit these bases into the double-helix model using cardboard cut-outs. An off-the-cuff suggestion by Jerry Donahue, a visiting chemist at Cambridge from Cal-Tech, asserted that the shape of those DNA bases ought to be the keto form and not the enol form, as the textbooks of the day asserted. Armed now with the memory of Franklin’s clear photograph, this next to-last-step in the emergence of the final model was absolutely crucial. It was not long after Donahue’s comment that the now classic paper, so often referred to as, “a turning point in scientific history,” appeared in Nature.

Maddox recounts a strange follow-up story, a curiosity in the history of this saga that Maddox finds “inexplicable.” In the summer of 1953, several months after the Nature publication, Francis Crick contacted Franklin and asked her if she agreed with the suggestion offered by Donahue. “‘The point was important,’ [Crick] said, ‘because if the unit cell is strictly C2, one must have the DNA chains in pairs, running in opposite directions.’” As Maddox reminds her readers, this scientific point was crucial for Watson and Crick. In separate papers published that same year, Franklin had said that “C2 is the only space group possible.” Why, Maddox wonders, had Watson or Crick failed to mention the importance of this in either of their Nature papers of 1953?

Brenda Maddox has done much in The Dark Lady of DNA to correct the image of Rosalind Franklin as portrayed in The Double Helix. However, there is nothing sugar coated about this biography. Rosalind Franklin was a complex woman. She had strong convictions. She was ambitious for her science and passionate in her research. She had many admirers. She never married, but she was loved. She enjoyed trekking in the mountains of Italy and Switzerland. She moved in a circle of free-thinking left-wing intellectuals but kept her own politics to herself. When Linus Pauling published a paper about DNA before Watson and Crick, it contained a fatal error. Graciously, Franklin wrote to Pauling, politely explaining his mistakes. That took courage — more so in an era where women in science were expected to hold themselves in reserve.

Maddox does not disappoint readers interested in the personal details of Franklin’s life. She was conservative in her demeanour and careful in dress and appearance, nothing like the dowdy spinster of Watson’s descriptions. Watson and Crick were far too young and indiscriminate to notice her style. She was also a good judge of scientific character. When Franklin died in 1958 she left the residue of her estate to her colleague and former student Aaron Klug. She knew that he had been struggling financially and in her final months wanted to ensure that he would be secure. Years later Aaron Klug was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In his 1982 Nobel acceptance Klug acknowledges Franklin. “Had her life not been cut tragically short, she might well have stood in this place on an earlier occasion.” As Maddox reminds her readers, in their Nobel acceptance speeches in 1962 Watson and Crick made no mention of Rosalind Franklin at all. It was only Wilkins who “uttered” Franklin’s name, mentioning her as one of two people (the other being Alex Stokes), who “made very valuable contributions to the X-ray analysis.”

Russell McNeil is a physicist and journalist who teaches Liberal Studies at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, BC.