- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

By Brenda Maddox
HarperCollins, $29.95, 380 pages, illus.

There have been many unsung heroines toiling in the vineyards of scientific research and, but for a couple of factors, Rosalind Elsie Franklin, who died at age 37 in 1958 of ovarian cancer, might have remained one of them. That she did not so languish is partly owing to the particular work on which she was engaged: nothing less than the identification of the basic building block of genetic material, the DNA molecule.
At the very least, her X-ray crystallography provided the first clear pictures of the helical shape of this elusive item, enabling James Watson and Francis Crick to identify it in all its newly revealed glory and in the process to shower themselves with fame and honor culminating in a Nobel Prize.
But it says a lot about the world of top-flight research science as well as the broader culture of the second half of the 20th century that what led, alalbeit indirectly, to Franklin's canonization in the pantheon of neglected female achievers was a vitriolic, personal, sexist, posthumous attack on her by none other than Mr. Watson.
In Mr. Watson's bestselling book "The Double Helix," the scientist as her latest biographer, Brenda Maddox, tells us was portrayed as "the terrible 'Rosy,' the bad-tempered bluestocking who hoarded her data and might have been pretty if she had taken off her glasses and done something interesting with her hair."
Others saw Franklin differently, both before and after Mr. Watson's notorious portrait. Writing in the Times of London just days after her death, the distinguished physicist J.D. Bernal, who had been her mentor, wrote, "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.
"She established definitely that the main sugar phosphate chain of nucleic acid lay on an outside spiral and not on an inner one, as had been authoritatively suggested… . As a scientist Miss Franklin 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."
And following the appearance of "The Double Helix," Franklin's colleague Aaron Klug (later himself a Nobel laureate) confirmed that "he had carefully studied her laboratory notebooks and found that, far from being anti-helical (as Watson, Crick and Wilkins continued to maintain) she had set out the evidence for a helical structure of DNA as early as … February 1952."
Brenda Maddox, with her credentials as a pioneering feminist biographer, is well suited to identifying the patterns of conflicting mythologizings and demythologizings: "Since Watson's book, Rosalind Franklin has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male," she notes. "This mythologising, intended to be reparative, has done her no favors."
In "The Dark Lady of DNA," The biographer has written a readable, at times judicious portrait of a woman who undoubtedly made a significant contribution to science.
At the same time, she has devoted considerable effort, with only moderate success, to produce a rounded portrait of a woman whose personality and character could be less than pleasant. On the subject of Franklin's sexuality she never married, quite probably had no sexual relationship with a man, and was emotionally drawn to unavailable married men the biographer is rather shallow in her analysis, surprising in the author of probing biographies of Mr. and Mrs. D.H. Lawrence and Mr. and Mrs. W.B. Yeats, to say nothing of her study of Mrs. James Joyce.
Surely, for instance, there should have been some sustained exploration of the possibility of Franklin being lesbian. But this is also the kind of book which spends a lot of time talking about its subject's family connections she belonged to a network of distinguished Anglo-Jewish families known as the Cousinhood (the Samuels, the Montagus, the Waleys, as well as the Franklins) who seemed to intermarry frequently with one another without delving sufficiently into the effect of belonging to such a tribe.
Similarly, Franklin's overbearing father and passive mother are sketched, but the psychological ramifications of having such parents should perhaps have been explored in greater depth.
The biographer seems to prefer taking refuge in sociological references rather than engaging in trenchant psychological analysis. Having described at length Franklin's attitude cavalier even by the laxer standards of those days to the dangers of exposure to excess radiation, the biographer maddeningly seems unwilling finally to link the ovarian cancer which killed her with such behavior.
Instead, she lamely tries to ascribe Franklin's illness to what she claims is the Jewish genetic predisposition to cancer; surely one of the choicest examples of the distressing tendency to substitute statistical probability for proximate cause.
The biographer is capable, too, of making factual errors: Somerset Maugham did not win the Nobel Prize for literature, as she avers in her disquisition on the undeniable inequities and iniquities of the choices made by the Nobel judges. Even more disturbing is a puzzling tendency to indulge in bouts of exaggerated over-scrupulousness which border on the spiteful.
In discussing Aaron Klug's lifelong defense of Franklin, she makes the following unaccountable statement: "Nor did Klug declare his personal interest in her defence. Klug owed Rosalind a debt of honor. By making him her principal beneficiary, she changed his life, made it possible for him and his wife to buy a house and to stay in Britain where he rose to great heights.
"He became successively Sir Aaron, a winner of the Nobel prize, holder of the Order of Merit (a tribute to greatness in the personal gift of the Queen) and, from 1995 to 2000, president of the Royal Society."
And she goes on to twist the knife in a footnote: "In 2000, A. Klug also enjoyed considerable financial gain from the sale of his papers, which included some of Rosalind's notebooks, papers, and letters…" What is the purpose of such an exercise? Why would the biographer even think that any of this vitiates Mr. Klug's graceful and heartfelt tributes to his dead colleague? And why would this biographer want to bite the hand, so to speak, of one of her most fruitful sources?
Indeed, Mr. Klug, a brilliant scientist, reveals himself to be equally acute in his assessment of Franklin's posthumous reputation: "For the feminists, however, she has become a doomed heroine, and they have seized upon her as an icon, which is not, of course, her fault. Rosalind was not a feminist in the ordinary sense, but she was determined to be treated equally just like anybody else."
This generous, thoughtful assessment certainly stands in stark contrast to the condescending attitude in the scientific community so crisply summarized by the biographer:
"Unhappily, Rosalind's denigration did not end with 'The Double Helix.' When outright mockery became impolitic, she began to be damned with faint praise; she has been called 'sound' and 'a good experimentalist', her ability and intelligence downgraded. It has been suggested that she was plodding, that she could not understand her own data or work in teams, accept criticism or use imagination. That none of these alleged inadequacies manifested themselves in Rosalind's work on viruses or coal is ignored by her detractors."
Reading this biography, one cannot but be struck by the sexist attitudes rampant in the scientific community in Franklin's day and the actual discrimination that was practiced. For instance, when she was a student at Cambridge University, women could not receive formal degrees although they took the same examinations that earned degrees for male colleagues.
It is disheartening to realize that although the equality of opportunity that Franklin so ardently sought did briefly become the norm in the years following her death, it was all too quickly replaced, in some institutions at least, by affirmative discrimination establishing lower admission and achievement standards for women.
One can only guess at the depth of Franklin's scorn for the patronizing denigration of the female mind behind such favors. For if it does nothing else, Brenda Maddox's biography establishes her subject's flinty integrity as a scientist.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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