The Dark Lady of DNA

I have just finished reading Brenda Maddox’s autobiography of Rosalind Franklin. I have read it very slowly over several weeks, as it was my entertainment while I stood on a tilted platform for the supposed good of my Achilles tendons. Perhaps it was appropriate to read about her life while standing up. This story of a natural, dedicated, curious, passionate scientist working in a period and against a backdrop in which her sex, her religion, her family, her nationality all contributed to either hold her back, belittle or occasionally encourage her, is a story to stiffen the morale of any woman (and, I would hope, man).

This is not a hagiography; Rosalind could be abrupt, exacting and almost anti-social in some atmospheres, but when among people she respected and, more tellingly, who respected her, she was full of life and fun, much-loved and her company sought after. She was a passionate walker and climber, happily travelling in France (where she worked for several years after the war), Italy and America (where she attended conferences and toured the university labs).

She ended her life in charge of a devoted research team at Birkbeck. Dying of ovarian cancer at the age of 37 in 1958, she worked almost to the last moments, when most of us would have been curled up and nursing our pain. Although known now for her role in the discovery of DNA (not acknowledged in her lifetime), she published innumerable scientific papers, many on coal and graphite and on the tobacco mosaic virus. Obscure subjects but ones of great significance for all of us down the line.

The book is detailed, illustrated and brings this very complex and admirable woman vividly to life.