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Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA Hardcover – October 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From 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."
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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 Because of her unpublished data and photographs, Francis Crick and James Watson were able to make the requisite connections.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.
--Marianne Stowell Bracke, Univ. of Arizona Libs., Tucson
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060184078
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060184070
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #750,593 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Bosco Ho on April 11, 2004
Format: Paperback
I was initially drawn to this book (as will most other readers I imagine) by the controversy surrounding Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the structure of the DNA helix. Instead, I was undeservingly rewarded with a fine biography of a character every bit as complex and fascinating as a heroine in a Henry James novel: a rich, head-strong English Jewish girl, blessed with a burning passion for science, talented but trapped in the chauvinistic world of post-war English science. She spent her life split between the sunny sophistication of France and the sobriety of England. Her professional life occurred through the Second World War, and the post-war period, providing a rich background for the biography.
On the DNA controversy, Brenda Fox gives the most compelling account that I have read of what actually happened: if anything, Franklin was a victim of the fractious atmosphere created by J.T. Randall, head of the department of Biophysics at King's college. By not clarifying the working relations between Wilkins, Franklin and their students, Randall deliberately created an ugly turf war. That Watson and Crick got to see her data was a result of confusion rather than espionage.
Yet, the question is often raised that Franklin was not capable of solving the structure on her own. To answer that question, one only has to follow her later career to find out that she was truly one of the great crystallographers. Her elucidation of the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus was a technical achievement easily rivalling that of DNA, and might have led to a Nobel-prize if not for her early death. Indeed, her junior collaborator on the mosaic virus, Aaron Klug, would go on to win a Nobel prize himself, citing Franklin as his greatest mentor in his Nobel-prize speech (a high honour amongst scientists).
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35 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Charles W. Garner on December 11, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A story of an unmarried Jewish woman in a man's world of science. The biography of Rosalind Franklin opens the book on a well-to-do Jewish family in the UK, revealing some of the deep-seated pressures and motivations driving this remarkable experimentalist. As a Biochemist, I now appreciate the fact that there is more to the discovery of the double helix than you will read about in The Double Helix. Indeed, the discovery of the double helix may be a 50 year-old example paralleling today's insider trading. The discovery of the double helix is the story of how someone is presented with the unpublished data of Rosalind Franklin (the acknowledged key to the structure of DNA)and "sells" the product to the world without her permission or knowledge. Warning: this book may change your perspective. I could not put this book down.
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85 of 94 people found the following review helpful By K. M. Pollard on October 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Brenda Maddox does a masterful job of laying out the life story of Rosalind Franklin, the supposed "forgotten lady of DNA". This biography is far superior to the personal vendetta waged against J D Watson on Franklin's behalf by Anne Sayre (see my comments on "Rosalind Franklin and DNA" by Anne Sayre).
Rosalind Franklin is the King's College scientist who obtained the x-ray photograph of the B form of DNA which was an important piece of information in the eventual description of a model of the structure of DNA that was described by J D Watson and FHC Crick in 1953, and for which they, along with Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize. Much has been written about whether Franklin was robbed of credit for her DNA contribution, whether she would have determined the structure by herself, and whether she would have shared in the Nobel. Whether these things are true or may have come to pass is difficult to say. Franklin died in 1958 and without her answers to some of these questions we are only left to speculate.
However Maddox leaves little speculation about who Rosalind Franklin was. This is a model biography of a true pioneer and an excellent role model for those seeking a career in the sciences. My own career was greatly influenced by Watson's personal account of the description of the model DNA structure he and Crick proposed. At that time (1971) I was more taken with the intuitive thinking displayed by the protagonists and their after hours antics than by the portrayal of "Rosy". In following years I have read Sayre and also Crick and others and have been somewhat bemused by the situation that surrounds Franklin and DNA, perhaps because it is almost all personal opinion and speculation. Maddox's picture is none of this.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By WhiteyC on February 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a fine biography that both covers Franklin's life very well and provides a solid sketch of the world she lived in, without going into the endless detail that some "life and times" biographies do. The book provides a clear understanding of who Franklin was and how she acted, both good and bad. She was a brilliant scientist and a warm, caring friend to many; on the other side she was a perfectionist (it goes with the brilliance) and an intellectual snob. It's the task of biography to show us the whole person, and this book does that.
The book also provides a fascinating description of the world of postwar science in Britain. It was still the era of "small science" in which brilliant individuals made major discoveries while working in cramped, dirty conditions with minimal facilities and what now seem absurdly small budgets. Individual scientists still designed their own equipment (one of Franklin's early contributions was the design of an improved X-ray camera) and still spent endless days on pencil-and-paper mathematical computations unless they were lucky enough to get permission from the budget gods to hire a "computer" human to do the arithmetic for them.
By covering Franklin's career in detail, Maddox makes clear that her work on DNA was only part of her career, and probably not the most important part. When she died the arc of her career was still climbing. Had Franklin lived she would have been a likely candidate for a Nobel Prize based not on her role in DNA but on research done later by her own team of researchers under her own direction. Her death at age 37 cutting her career short was a loss to all human society.
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