Book Review: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady Of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Book: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady Of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Published October 2002 by Harper|400 pages

Where I Got It: I borrowed the hardcover from the library

Series: None

Genre: Adult Non-Fiction/Biography/Science

In March 1953, Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, London, announced the departure of his obstructive colleague Rosalind Franklin to rival Cavendish Laboratory scientist Francis Crick. But it was too late. Franklin’s unpublished data and crucial photograph of DNA had already been seen by her competitors at the Cambridge University lab. With the aid of these, plus their own knowledge, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of the molecule that genes are composed of — DNA, the secret of life. Five years later, at the age of thirty-seven, after more brilliant research under J. D. Bernal at Birkbeck College, Rosalind died of ovarian cancer. In 1962, Wilkins, Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their elucidation of DNA’s structure. Franklin’s part was forgotten until she was caricatured in Watson’s book The Double Helix.

In this full and balanced biography, Brenda Maddox has been given unique access to Franklin’s personal correspondence and has interviewed all the principal scientists involved, including Crick, Watson and Wilkins.

This is a powerful story, told by one of the finest biographers, of a remarkably single-minded, forthright and tempestuous young woman who, at the age of fifteen, decided she was going to be a scientist, but who was airbrushed out of the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century.

This was a pretty interesting read.  It’s been a really long time since I took biology, so I don’t remember much of anything.  But I’m glad I picked up this biography because I really had no idea that she had a role in figuring out the whole DNA thing.  I mean, I (very vaguely) remember Crick and Watson, and Wilkins seems sort of familiar, but Franklin doesn’t ring a bell at all.  I don’t know if it’s because she never came up (it was high school biology, after all), or if it’s because she did, and I just don’t remember anything.

It was clear she loved science, and that it was what she wanted to do.  She was determined and hard-working and pretty successful, and it’s sad that she didn’t get more recognition.  It’s not surprising, because she was working in the U.K. after World War 2, in a male-dominated field.  I thought that Maddox did a great job at showing why she didn’t get the recognition she deserved.

It’s a pretty balanced book- we learn about who she was as a person, but we also learn a lot about the scientific developments of the time.  Things really seemed to start changing at that time, and it was interesting to see how her work played such a huge role in figuring out the mysteries of DNA.  She was so close to figuring it out herself, and it was sad that her work was passed along without her knowledge.  That other people got the credit for figuring it out when they couldn’t have done it without her…I really felt for her.  It’s too bad she didn’t get more recognition for all of the work and research she did.

I didn’t love it, and there were times where I had to put it down because I did struggle just the smallest bit with reading it.  I’m not sure why, because I thought it was a pretty interesting read.  I did like that it wasn’t too technical, and it felt like the material was pretty easy to understand.  I do wonder what would have happened had she not died so young- she died from cancer the age of 37, and she did a lot in her life.  Would else would she have discovered and done had she not died?

3 stars.  I didn’t love it- I’m not sure why, but generally speaking I’m not a huge biography person, so that might be it.  While I really liked her story, and while I wish she got the recognition she deserved, I wasn’t as into it as I thought it would be.  I think’s a story everyone should know, because she contributed a lot to one of the biggest scientific discoveries we’ve seen.

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