Reenie's Reviews > Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA

Rosalind Franklin by Brenda Maddox
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Jan 07, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction, science, female-author
Read in January, 2010

Another book wading into the (auto)biographical minefield that is the discovery of the structure of DNA. (And by minefield I'm thinking more after everything's been blown up already and everything is one ugly tangled mess of mud and holes and bitterness.) On the other hand, this is a pretty good one, carefully researched and generally even-handed, focused more on putting forward a complete picture of Rosalind Franklin's life and personality rather than getting too caught up in the debate about whether she was a feminist martyr/victim at the mercy of the science old boys club.

It's definitely and interesting life and a very very interesting personality, one clearly capable of rubbing people the wrong way (that in a scientist? Shocking! Yeah, not really) but also far more than that. I think the book's at its strongest when describing how Rosalind related with (or failed to relate with) the various people around her, how she ran her lab group, and went after funding and new experiments.

However, there's definitely a few things I would have liked to have not seen, or seen in different places. Given that, historically, the DNA discovery and writing about the DNA discovery, is an afore-mentioned minefield, there's no way to avoid continually referencing previous accounts and the debate and myths that have arisen, and in the epilogue, Maddox explains some of the context of the various accounts written about it, starting with Watson's the Double Helix (which seems to have pissed off every single other person who featured in it for its wildly skewed accounts of... pretty much everyone). Given that the body of the book continually references the debates that sprung up from the Double Helix and subsequent books, while apparently assuming that everyone is well-versed with the different accounts, I think some of her context needed to come before the end of the book - it would be more useful for the casual reader (those who haven't been following all the accounts), if more clearly (and maybe awkwardly) dealing with accumulated baggage, to set out the debate before wading in.

Also, I could have done without a lot of the first two or three chapters... the stuff about childhood and family kind of dragged, and wasn't nearly as interesting as it seemed to think it was. Unlike the Adams family, there aren't five miles of microfilm of Franklin's letters, and sometimes it shows, adding in details that mostly ended up feeling like filler, rather than illuminating tidbits. Once it gets to her PhD and subsequent career though, it generally picks up.

Secondly, although Maddox mostly stays clear of the angry feminist 'reading of the data' that has occasionally abounded in accounts of Franklin, sometimes things like this sneak in:

"But the male fear of the female has always been absurd - the stronger afraid of the weaker - but no less real for that. To dismiss it is to dismiss the Medusa, the Loathly Lady, the Wicked Witch of the West and all the other guises for whatever the male resents and recoils from in the female..."

Euggh. Shut up, or save it for the literary criticism, because in a biography of a well-respected scientist, female or male, that kind of sentence and 'analysis' just sounds stupid. Seriously stupid. (Yeah, I bookmarked that page when I came across it, because it bugged me enough to want to save it for the review... could you guess?)
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