- Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox
HarperCollins, 380 pp, £20.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 00 257149 8
The molecular revolution in biology began 50 years ago with the discovery of the structure of DNA, and has had such an impact that the reading public’s interest now extends even to the lives of molecular biologists. Indeed, molecular biologists have stolen the limelight from physicists and astronomers. Best known among them are the Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick; less well known is Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958 aged 37. Today many believe that, had she lived, she, too, would have won a Nobel Prize for her pivotal contribution to the work on DNA and subsequently on the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. In 2000, as if to mark a new beginning, King’s College London dedicated a new building in the Strand to Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, the third recipient of the Nobel Prize, who carried out their DNA research in the College’s biophysics unit. Brenda Maddox calls this ‘a genuflection bordering on political correctness’.
Vol. 25 No. 8 · 17 April 2003
I was dismayed to read the title ‘Rosy Revised’ given to Robert Olby’s review of Brenda Maddox’s Life of Rosalind Franklin (LRB, 20 March). The simple nastiness of James Watson’s caricature of ‘Rosy’ scarcely merits an editorial echo.
Readers unfamiliar with the key role that Rosalind Franklin’s unpublished data and findings played in the determination of the structure of DNA may wonder why so much has been written about the life of a scientist who died young. They would find it more understandable if they were to convert Olby’s reference to Crick and Watson’s ‘semi-covert’ use of Franklin’s data into simple English: the use, without her knowledge and consent, of her unpublished data and findings. Olby refers to the details of this sorry affair only obliquely, with a reference to Anne Sayre’s revisionist 1975 account of Franklin.
It may be true that, had she lived, Franklin would have gained worldwide renown for her work on virus structure and that ‘some of the myths about Franklin would have lost their lustre’ (whatever Olby may be implying here). But Olby leaves the most important questions unexplored. He writes that Watson ‘seemed oblivious to the ethical aspects’. The assertion, made when Franklin’s data were given to Watson and Crick, that she did not know how to interpret her own data defines a new low in ethical conduct. If we can criticise the police or the medical establishment when they close ranks we should hold ourselves to the same standard. Although Olby appears aware of these ethical questions, he has chosen not to address them but instead to provide multiple peripheral diversions: Franklin’s background, her social life and viewpoints and a long and inevitably unsuccessful attempt to explain the phase problem.
Columbia University, New York
Vol. 25 No. 9 · 8 May 2003
In her response to my review of Brenda Maddox’s Life of Rosalind Franklin, Barbara Low (Letters, 17 April) focuses on the ethics of Watson and Crick’s use of Franklin’s DNA data, whereas I concentrated on Maddox’s achievement – in what is, after all, not a scientific biography – in bringing Franklin’s personality into view. I did, however, criticise Maddox for expressing too much confidence in Patterson analysis. Well-informed statements of the limitations of the method exist in the literature of X-ray crystallography, but one would not expect the general reader to have encountered them. I did not write that Franklin ‘did not know how to interpret her own data’, but I did try to point out the clues that were available in those data.
University of Pittsburgh