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Rosalind Franklin: the not-so-dark lady of DNA

By Jenifer Glynn

If Rosalind Franklin had lived, she would have been 92 today. But she died at 37, five years after the discovery of the structure of DNA had been announced by Watson and Crick. As Crick confessed later (but never confessed to her): “the data which really helped us to obtain the structure was mainly obtained by Rosalind Franklin.” She had been marginalised, and might have been forgotten if Watson hadn’t later portrayed her so unkindly in The Double Helix. The book was enormously successful, but the caricature of Rosalind, appearing ten years after she had died, moved many to rally to her defense. Now, instead of being forgotten, she has become something of a feminist heroine, a symbol of a downtrodden woman scientist. But she was far from being a feminist or being downtrodden.

She was a strong character who was a passionate and fine scientist; she would not have thought of herself as a ‘woman scientist’, fighting for the rights of women. Before she went to work on DNA at King’s College, she had worked in London and Paris on the structure of coals and carbons, producing papers that are still admired and cited. And after King’s she moved to Bernal’s lab at Birkbeck College, working with great success with Aaron Klug on viruses. One fairly safe prediction is that she would have moved with him and the rest of her group to the new Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. She is famous because of her DNA work, but that only took just over two years of her brief life. She had other scientific distinctions, and she had other interests – a love of travel, a love of mountains, and a lively enjoyment of friends.

She was a great letter-writer, and we are lucky that a large pile of her letters survive, with stories of her travels and plans or observations on people and places and politics. Her uninhibited and conversational style of writing is full of her character, from childish enthusiasms and indignation  – “I only got B to B+ for that essay, which is very bad (I told you she was an old pig)” – to adult travels – “we started out in cloud at 4.30 a.m. and the cloud lifted suddenly at sunrise, just as we came onto the glacier…. I cannot describe the effect. I can only tell you that the sheer beauty of it made me weep.”

And she was sympathetic to the problems of post-war Paris, “the lower-paid workers have little more than starvation wages, and the urge for increase is an equivalent to an appeal for enough to eat…. My co-workers who have no private means are either in rags or wear clothes sent by friends in America.” She felt herself lucky, for “I find life interesting, I have good friends… and I find infinite kindness and good will among the people I work with. All that is far more important than a larger meat ration or more frequent baths.” “Almost every one I have met,” she wrote, “has spent the war in hiding… but their concentration on the present enables them to start a new life”. Paris, in its recovery from wartime occupation and shortages, was a stimulating place to live, “far and away the best city in the world.” It gave her “a fresh thrill every day when I walk to or from my work along by the Seine.”

Back from vibrant optimistic Paris to grey boring bomb-scarred London she was less ready to be sympathetic. This was of course the time of her famous work, but for her it didn’t start as a happy time. Life was far better at Birkbeck and her virus research there was going wonderfully when her fatal cancer struck.

I can’t imagine her at 92. She had packed a lot into her 37 years. My favourite picture of her was taken in 1950 or so, when she was sitting, full of energy and obvious enthusiasm, in this mountain hut in the Alps.

Jenifer Glynn followed her sister Rosalind to St Paul’s school and to Newnham College, where  she read history.  She started writing when her children had grown up, and is the author of My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir which published this year. Her previous work includes Prince of Publishers, A Biography of the Great Victorian Publisher George Smith; Tidings from Zion, Helen Bentwich’s Letters from Jerusalem 1919-1931; The Life and Death of Smallpox (written with her husband, Ian Glynn); and The Pioneering Garretts.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has granted free access for a limited time to Rosalind Franklin’s biography. You can also listen to Franklin’s biography as an episode in ODNB’s free biography podcast series.

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Rosalind Franklin in alpine hut. Photo from private collection of Jenifer Glynn and used with permission.

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