The Dark Lady of DNA
If Rosalind Franklin had lived, would she have gotten the Nobel Prize? Who knows. Although the decisions on who gets a Nobel are secret, there’s no doubt about petty maneuverings for favored candidates. And the Nobel isn’t exactly known for its generous treatment of women. But as Brenda Maddox explains in her biography, Franklin was far from looking for a Nobel. Yes, Franklin threw herself whole-heartedly into her work, but she didn’t see herself in the rat race that Watson and Crick were so eager to win. Contrary to some views that Franklin was a plodding worker with no imagination, she worked steadily to accumulate enough evidence to be right. She wasn’t one to rush out and publish what she thought was right.
Franklin was born into a well-to-do Jewish family that was already assimilated into British society. But even though she had the trappings of the upper echelons with her refined accent and socialite friends, Maddox argues that this was not enough to banish her feelings of alienation and depression stemming from the era’s tolerance of anti-semitism and marginalization of women. Perhaps that is why Franklin felt more at ease abroad or with foreigners–England to her seemed drab, stiff, and unwelcoming. And perhaps that is why she appears to have two personalities–bright and vivacious to her close friends and colleagues and dour and combative to anyone else who regarded her patronizingly like a child.
But for someone who is so well known to biology students these days, Franklin managed to avoid the subject until J.T. Randall from King’s College put her on the DNA project. In some aspects, it seemed as if she had remained willfully ignorant either following in her family tradition of not talking about it or her own puritanism. Perhaps this contributed to the Sylvia Plath-like quality of her personal life–all the men she ever loved were already married but she had too many scruples to break up a marriage.
It is tragic that her life was cut short, possibly from not knowing the hazards of X-ray crystallography (she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37) and who knows what she would have accomplished if she was still alive. In the last years of her life, she collaborated with Aaron Klug to elucidate the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus. Even up to the end, she would go to her office regardless of her illness and shrugging off help to study polio. That kind of dedication is moving, if not heroic.