We first meet Rosalind Franklin as she begins her work in a “labo” in Paris. Although the women in her affluent Jewish family were expected to be wives, mothers, and philanthropists, Rosalind is a scientist who works with x-ray crystallography to capture images of the parts of a cell that are far too small to see with a typical microscope. She enjoys the comradery and equality with her French co-workers, but when a romantic entanglement goes south, she returns to England, where she does her greatest work in a less appreciative atmosphere. One of the men in her group is so offended that he is expected to cooperate with a woman as an equal, rather than as her superior, that he becomes great friends with a different university research team, particularly two men named Francis Crick and James Watson.
Marie Benedict writes novels about real-life, forgotten women who accomplished great things but did not receive credit in their lifetimes. In this story, since readers know the ending before Rosalind does, they will watch with fury as Maurice Wilkins fed her research findings on DNA to Watson and Crick before she had a chance to publish them in her own name. Later, of course, the two men were the ones to receive a Nobel Prize, and Watson wrote scathingly about Franklin in his book The Double Helix, which was universally rejected, even by his own friends and colleagues.
Franklin went on to produce great scientific research into RNA and the nature of viruses. She loved to climb mountains and cook French meals for her friends, although her family never understood her work and she never had a successful romantic relationship. Eventually, inevitably, she fell victim to the long-term effects of daily radiation. She died surrounded by her family and friends from England, the United States, and Europe. Her great love was science.
Marie Benedict also wrote The Personal Librarian (reviewed here) and a long list of other biographical novels, many of which are in my to-be-read pile. The first chapter of this novel had quite a bit of scientific detail, and I worried that I would not be able to understand Rosalind Franklin’s work well enough. Benedict says in the author’s note at the end that she had to learn more about DNA for her research into this novel. Very quickly, though, the reader is brought up to speed on Franklin’s laboratory methods, and anyone who took high school biology would be able to follow the fascinating plot.
Important revelations about a science superstar, and a perfect read for Women’s History Month!
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.