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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

3.5 4
by Brenda Maddox

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In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin's data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery.

Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was


In 1962, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick, and James Watson received the Nobel Prize, but it was Rosalind Franklin's data and photographs of DNA that led to their discovery.

Brenda Maddox tells a powerful story of a remarkably single-minded, forthright, and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Sunday Telegraph
“A joy to read.”
“A finely crafted biography.”
Washington Post Book World
“Lively, absorbing and even handed … What emerges is the complex portrait of a passionate, flawed, courageous women.”
“Able, balanced and well researched.”
The Economist
“A meticulous biography…[Rosalind Franklin] was the unacknowledged heroine of DNA, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology.”
New York Times Book Review
“A sensitive, sympathetic look at a women whose life was greater than the sum if its parts.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Maddox does justice to her subject as only the best biographers can.”
Women's Review of Books
“An excellent biography … Maddox’s account of Franklin’s last years and premature death is moving and poignant.”
Chicago Tribune
“Thoughtful and engaging.”
The Independent
“A gripping yet nuanced account … a magnificent biography.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Brenda Maddox has done a great service to science and history.”
Daily Telegraph (London)
“A vivid three-dimensional portrait of a sciencetist and human being … a moving biography.”
Publishers Weekly
Her photographs of DNA were called "among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken," but physical chemist Rosalind Franklin never received due credit for the crucial role these played in the discovery of DNA's structure. In this sympathetic biography, Maddox argues that sexism, egotism and anti-Semitism conspired to marginalize a brilliant and uncompromising young scientist who, though disliked by some colleagues, was a warm and admired friend to many. Franklin was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Jewish family and was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. After beginning her research career in postwar Paris she moved to Kings College, London, where her famous photographs of DNA were made. These were shown without her knowledge to James Watson, who recognized that they indicated the shape of a double helix and rushed to publish the discovery; with colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Deeply unhappy at Kings, Rosalind left in 1953 for another lab, where she did important research on viruses, including polio. Her career was cut short when she died of ovarian cancer at age 37. Maddox sees her subject as a wronged woman, but this view seems rather extreme. Maddox (D.H. Lawrence) does not fully explore an essential question raised by the Franklin-Watson conflict: whether methodology and intuition play competing or complementary roles in scientific discovery. Drawing on interviews, published records, and a trove of personal letters to and from Rosalind, Maddox takes pains to illuminate her subject as a gifted scientist and a complex woman, but the author does not entirely dispel the darkness that clings to "the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology." (Oct. 2)
Library Journal
Rosalind Franklin is known to few, yet she conducted crucial research that led to one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century-the double helical structure of DNA. Because of her unpublished data and photographs, Francis Crick and James Watson were able to make the requisite connections. Until recently, Franklin was remembered only as the "dark lady"-a stereotypically frustrated and frustrating female scientist, as profiled in Watson's 1968 autobiography, The Double Helix. Maddox (whose D.H. Lawrence won the Whitbread Biography Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) does an excellent job of revisiting Franklin's scientific contributions (to the point of overloading nonscientists) while revealing Franklin's complicated personality. She shows a woman of fiery intellect and fierce independence whom some saw as haughty, though to family and close friends she was warm and devoted. Maddox displays a unique voice in recounting Franklin's story, using letters written to family and friends for much of the text. Her voice subtly draws us in while holding us at arm's length, much like Franklin herself. By the end, the reader is bristling that Franklin should be mostly forgotten, but this biography provides some recompense. Recommended for public libraries with science collections and all academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.]-Marianne Stowell Bracke, Univ. of Arizona Libs., Tucson Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This engagingly direct biography of Franklin encapsulates her vital contributions to science and in particular the deciphering of DNA while providing a durable portrait of a forceful personality.

Maddox (D.H. Lawrence, 1994, etc.) doesn't take the combative, defensive tack that previous works in Franklin's defense have affected. She believes Franklin's work speaks for itself, and it does, though often through the dark matter of physical chemistry, which Maddox presents with as admirably accessible a touch as possible for the lay audience. Of course, the crux of the story revolves around her contribution to the understanding of the structure of DNA: her x-ray photograph was very much a part of the a-ha! that prompted Watson and Crick's double-helix formulation, even if she was not given credit at the time, but then neither were others who provided crucial insights, from Oswald Avery to Jerry Donohue. Just as interested as Maddox is in the professional work of Franklin—who also gained renown for her work on the chemistry of coal and on the tobacco mosaic virus—she is fascinated by Franklin's character, which could be prickly, reserved, suspicious, highly territorial, and abrupt. Franklin was a Jewish woman scientist from a well-to-do family, a highly suspect creature when it came to the English academic establishment, which was hardly a supportive environment for her. She was unafraid of speaking her mind yet lacking confidence and wary of her intuitions, fought tooth and nail for funding, was solitary, confrontational when cornered, a social innocent who had made science the core of her emotional life. She did have a personal life, well detailed by Maddox, with friends and travels.Importantly, she received considerable recognition for her work; Maddox regards the notion that she was crushed by the DNA ballyhoo as ridiculous. Franklin went on to do her best work thereafter, never accepting a role as "the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology."

At once a scientific exploration and a personal history, Maddox's biography is inviting and ultimately satisfying. (16 pages b&w photos)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Once in Royal David's City

The Family into which Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born on 25 July 1920, stood high in Anglo-Jewry. Not at the very top: the highest rank was occupied by the oldest Jewish families in England, the Sephardi Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent who arrived at the time of Cromwell. Nor were the Franklins among the wealthiest of the Ashkenazis from northern Europe, such as the Rothschilds and Goldsmids, who came to England in the eighteenth century seeking opportunity for trade. Yet they were well within the elite network known as 'The Cousinhood', so common was intermarriage.

The first of their English line arrived as Fraenkel from Breslau in Silesia in 1763 and anglicised the name to Franklin, as was sensible. The English were uncomfortable with foreign names, and Jewishness was no advantage at a time there were only 8,000 Jews in England. Benjamin Wolf Franklin lived in the City of London, on Cock Court, Jewry Street. A rabbi and teacher, he married Sarah, the daughter of Lazarus Joseph, originally Lazarus Israel, who emigrated to England from Hamburg around 1760. Benjamin and Sarah had six children before dying in an epidemic in 1785. Their gravestones still stand in the burial ground in Globe Road Cemetery, Mile End, East London.

The two surviving Franklin sons, Abraham and Lewis, went to Portsmouth for apprenticeships in watchmaking and shopkeeping and became successful businessmen. In 1815 or 1816 the brothers shifted to Liverpool and Manchester where they entered firms engaged in money-changing, banking and trade with the West Indies. In time, the Samuels of Liverpool (another lineof Silesian exiles) were braided into the Franklin fabric. Over the generations the Abrahams became Alfreds and Arthurs, and the ancestral surname Israel became Ellis. In 1852 the grandson of the original immigrant, Ellis A. Franklin, joined Louis Samuel from Liverpool in the bullion-broking firm of Samuel Montagu and Co., and the alliance was cemented when Ellis married Samuel Montagu's sister.

From 1868 the Franklin family's financial base lay in the City of London, in A. Keyser and Co., a private merchant bank spun off from Samuel Montagu and Co. Keyser's, a source of employment for Franklin sons for the next century, became independent in 1908 and specialised in placing American rail bonds in the City. Among the City's so-called 'Jewish banks', Keyser's was the only one to observe all the Jewish holidays.

From 1902 Franklins were publishers as well as bankers. Keyser's bought the house of George Routledge from the receivers in 1902 and in 1911 took over another ailing publisher, Kegan Paul. This acquisition created a refuge for Franklin males disinclined to banking.

In 1862, in line with the exodus from the City of London where the Jews had clustered, Ellis Franklin shifted to west London and the wealthy Jewish enclave in Bayswater. There he was one of the founders of the New West End Synagogue on St Petersburgh Place. His seven children, all of whom married within the faith, made the family known for prodigious philanthropic zeal -- a leading example of the Jewish tradition of repaying the privilege of wealth through service to those less fortunate. In succeeding generations there was scarcely a Jewish organisation, hospital or old people's home without a Franklin on the board and many secular charities benefited from their dedication as well.

On her mother's side Rosalind's antecedents were intellectual and professional. The Waleys had been in England even longer than the Franklins, having arrived in Portsmouth in 1740 as Levis. Rosalind's maternal great-grandfather, Jacob Waley, took first place in mathematics and classics at University College London, and later became professor of mathematics at the University of London while also practising at the bar. He too was active in Jewish good works, as a founder of the United Synagogue (an association of nominally Orthodox synagogues which observed the German or Polish ritual), and first president of the Anglo-Jewish Association. In a prime example of 'The Cousinhood' in action, he married Matilda Salomons, a niece of both Sir Moses Montefiore and Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London.

Anglo-Jewry was a happy breed: secure, able, influential, socially conscious, cosmopolitan. Its members dressed for dinner, were presented at Court, had their portraits painted by Singer Sargent. Many kept Christmas and Passover, ate kosher and played cricket. The price of belonging was intermarriage. But there was no need for exogamy -- the dreaded 'marrying out'. As prolific as other families of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, the clans produced enough offspring to stock a generous marriage pool, and to speed the path to it through a well-organised social round of dances, picnics, theatre parties and country weekends. Rosalind's parents, Ellis Franklin and Muriel Waley, met at an engagement party at the family house in Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, and began their courtship by escaping for a long walk across Hyde Park.

Which was the stronger loyalty -- to country or to faith? There was nothing to choose. As Rosalind's father said when reorganising the New West End Synagogue after the Second World War, 'The whole idea is that Judaism is a religion not a race ... the English Jews are as much English as other English.'


The discovery of the secret of the gene involves a genealogy as long as any in the history of the planet. Elders of the Franklin clan claimed direct descent from King David, founder of Jerusalem, reigning king of Israel c.1000 to c.962 BC, around whom the messianic expectations of the people of Israel clustered. The lineage was spelled out by Rosalind's grandfather, Arthur E. Franklin, in a thick blue book beautifully produced by Routledge, the family firm.

'It may appear strange,' he conceded in his introduction, 'that anyone living in the fourteenth [actually fifteenth] century could trace his descent from King David.' He then proceeded to lay out the evidence ...

Rosalind Franklin. Copyright © by Brenda Maddox. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Brenda Maddox is an award-winning biographer whose work has been translated into ten languages. Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, the Silver PEN Award, and the French Prix du Mailleur Livre Etranger. Her life of D. H. Lawrence won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1974, and Yeats's Ghosts, on the married life of W. B. Yeats, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 1998. She has been Home Affairs Editor for the Economist, has served as chairman of the Association of British Science Writers and is a member of the Royal Society's Science and Society Committee. She lives in London and Mid-Wales.

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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As an undergraduate I read about the discovery of the structure of DNA by Dr. J.D. Watson. What I didn't know was that it was Dr. R. Franklins X-ray crystallography of DNA fibers that was instrumental to this discovery. Ms. Maddox describes what the climate was like for this woman in science. It was the 1950s and from this book it appears that women didn't get the respect that men did. Still Dr. Franklin was a very successful scientist who did travel the world giving lectures about her work. However, this book points out that Dr. Franklin didn't get the credit she deserved for her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The world has changed since the 50's. From my own life experience I find that it's easier for a woman to get respect for her work. And she doesn't have to give up life for that. I enjoyed the historical points in this book...as I have traveled to Cambridge..and have seen some of the places alluded to in the book without having known some of their scientific significance...I enjoyed the story, as much as I enjoyed the history. It is not necessary to be a scientist to enjoy this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ive never been more bored in my life. Do yoursekf a favor and save the 12 bucks. MOST BORING BOOK EVER
Angi_Simon More than 1 year ago
I purchased for a later read. I Can't review yet, but it loos to be a great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
i'm glad this book was written for credit purposes but it was the most boring book i have ever read!