beantown junket, part 1

I finished Brenda Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin on the plane, having devoured it over a couple of days. One caveat: I would have liked more explanation of how x-ray crystallographic photographs relate to the structure of crystals themselves. I’ve read Watson on this but I still gaze baffled upon Franklin’s beautiful pictures, unable to visualize the way the light bounces off molecules to make the images on the film. I guess this is why I am not a physical chemist.

I’m going to assume that my readers, all five of you, are familiar with the bones of the controversy: that Crick, Watson and Wilkins based their Nobel-prize-winning discovery of the helical structure of DNA on Franklin’s matchless experimental work, with very little in the way of attribution. While Maddox is fastidious about establishing who saw what when, she rejects the boring doomed-victim myth of Franklin as “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology.” As a result everyone comes off far better than you might expect, including Wilkins, who was awful but going through a very bad patch, and Watson, a vile man yet appreciative of Franklin’s work and later her friend and defender.

(I do like Crick’s lofty dismissal of The Double Helix as “Jim’s novel.” I hadn’t heard that before and it is wonderfully apt, especially when you consider that earlier drafts were titled Honest Jim – as in Lucky Jim – and the equally ironic Base Pairs.)

Maddox’s great achievement, though, is to lift Franklin out of the mire of that now thoroughly-picked-over dogfight and to celebrate her marvellous science. Franklin comes off best of all. Before she ever tackled DNA, she established that the crystalline structure of different types of coal was what determined whether they would become graphitic when heated. After she escaped from King’s and Wilkins’ baleful presence she demonstrated the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), another helical molecule with an RNA spiral around a hollow inner core. At Birkbeck she nurtured a group of madly gifted younger scientists, one of whom, Aaron Klug, went on to win a Nobel of his own.

Without overdoing it, I think, Maddox connects Franklin’s prickly, stubborn intelligence with the extraordinary quality of her painstaking experimental approach. DNA (like Franklin) could be difficult to work with, requiring large reserves of patience, physical intuition and a deft touch. Maddox also shows that Franklin’s personality was many-faceted (yes, like a crystal, sigh.) For everyone who remembers the brusque, intimidating dark lady haunting the corridors at King’s, there are five people who recall the intrepid traveller and mountain climber, the fluent intellectual in Paris or the merry spinster aunt who brought wonderful gifts and instigated endless games.

I put the book down feeling that I knew Franklin and her work a little better and liking her very much indeed. The tragedy of her life is not that she missed out on the Nobel Prize but that she died at 37. To cancer I say: bah.

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