In 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick stormed into The Eagle pub outside their Cambridge University lab and declared that they had discovered the secret of life. After two years of frenetic brainstorming and failed attempts, the pair had unraveled the structure of DNA--one of the century's most thrilling scientific discoveries. Its pioneers were honored with Nobel Prizes all round--except, arguably, for one. In a fast-paced new book, "Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA," Brenda Maddox has restored to history the author of some of the most significant research into genetics. Franklin, then a biophysicist at King's College in London, was herself working on the structure of DNA and, argues Maddox, was on the cusp of unraveling it when Watson secretly obtained some of her data and raced across the finish line. Maddox's fresh, wide-ranging account plots the process of the discovery, which was fraught with more duplicity and backstabbing than a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
In his bumptious best-selling tract "The Double Helix," Watson had demonized Franklin as a volatile, antagonistic bluestocking. Later accounts hailed her as a feminist icon, robbed of the Nobel by male colleagues. Access to Franklin's previously unpublished personal papers and lab notes enabled Maddox to move away from these caricatures, drawing out Franklin's difficult and complex position. She found her lab at King's College an extraordinarily hostile environment, in which women were treated as second-class citizens, and she struggled to have her work taken seriously. A wealthy, educated Jew, she never felt entirely at home in drab, postwar Britain. Yet in friendlier labs she prospered. Pursuing groundbreaking research on viruses at Birkbeck College in London after leaving King's, she was liked, admired and successful.
Watson certainly found her work to be of use. In the winter of 1952, running out of new ideas on the structure of DNA and anxious about reports from across the Atlantic that renowned chemist Linus Pauling was close to a solution, Watson paid a visit to Maurice Wilkins, Franklin's boss at King's. Wilkins showed him one of her startlingly clear X-ray photographs. It was a crucial piece of evidence. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson writes in "The Double Helix." Wilkins, who received the Nobel along with Crick and Watson, had begun secretly copying Franklin's research so he could pursue it after her departure from the lab, though he had been shown the photo legitimately by Franklin's research student. He used her research, without her knowledge or permission, to work out the details of the helical shape of DNA and the way in which it replicates--the key to the puzzling inheritance of genetic traits. (He rationalized in "The Double Helix" that Franklin was hoarding data she was incapable of interpreting.)
Why didn't Franklin, with such significant evidence already at her fingertips, come to her own conclusions about the structure of DNA? Watson has suggested that she simply wasn't smart enough. But in a section describing the progress made week by week, Maddox shows convincingly that the experiments Franklin was engaged in, and her previous work on the structure of carbon, proved her ability to think creatively, and suggests that given a couple of more months she would have drawn up a theory. But, as Crick and Watson were pursuing their solution covertly, Franklin had no inkling she was running a race.
Writing Franklin's obituary when she died just four years later at the age of 37, her boss at Birkbeck, J. D. Bernal, summed up a more common contemporary opinion of Franklin. She "was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." Franklin continued experimenting after she contracted ovarian cancer and, in the moving conclusion, Maddox describes her crawling up the stairs to her lab, or standing for hours in evening dress, hiding the pain she was in, patiently explaining her discoveries at exhibitions. Maddox rightly refused to portray Franklin as a feminist icon, a victim cheated of the Nobel Prize. She certainly didn't see herself that way. As she lay in the hospital drinking radioactive liquid gold, an early form of chemotherapy, she considered herself deprived of one prize only. That was life itself, and the chance to continue the work that had already ensured her reputation.