Brenda Maddox Book Review: “Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady Of DNA”

According to Rosalind Franklin’s great-grandfather, she was a descendant of David, King of Israel, 945 BC Born in 1920, Franklin rose to prominence on the world stage in the mid-20th century. Biographically credited by noted writer Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin was the real brains behind the discovery of the structure of DNA.

As a noted crystallographer, Rosalind originally photographed a strand of DNA, after many attempts, leading to the prestigious Nobel Prize awarded to Crick and Watson. Needless to say, they couldn’t have succeeded without her contribution; and needless to say, they forgot to mention her contribution to the presentation of the article and the physical model of deoxyribonucleic acid.

A precocious child, Rosalind never gave up in her quest for knowledge and advancement beyond her peers. She always strove to excel in academia, in science, and in industry, and she received top marks in all academic courses and scientific endeavors. Although she was a very beautiful woman, her pursuit of excellence left little time for romantic ties with the many male associates in scientific circles. Although she met an impressive array of intellectuals and scientifically (and romantically) inclined people, she did not marry and died alone at age 37. Many men mourned her passing, acknowledging the hardships endured, the lack of recognition and the ephemeral life of an attractive and extremely brilliant Hebrew woman, mathematician, crystallographer and biochemist. She strode toward excellence despite outright anti-Semitism and opposition to authoritarian women: she grew up in a time when women weren’t allowed to vote, hold assertive positions, or do little more than raise children and take care of the home.

Fluent in French as well as her native English, she developed a keen interest in the end of the British Mandate and the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty in Palestine and was outraged by French news coverage of the transition. In her correspondence with her father about an article contained in The Economistshe asked, “Who is responsible for the article: Now there can be no kind of settlement in Palestine, but the force.”Despite his loyalty, he was out of touch with the Middle Eastern mentality and Arab resentment towards anything non-Islamic; presciently, the French article was entirely correct. Sixty years later, the Arab world continues its jihad against the infidels.

Despite her optimism, Rosalind’s interest and expertise lay not so much in metaphysics as in physics. Well, she could direct interest in the tangible; because intangible monotheism, as was later shown, cannot simultaneously harmonize within the advanced disciplines among its three constituent branches. Because Judaism must condemn Christian-Islamic adoption; Christianity must condemn the Judaism-Islamic abandonment to messianic recognition; and Islam must condemn Judeo-Christian ethics and ethos. But Rosalind was more interested in the atomic propensity and not in the warlike Gnostic tendencies.

When Rosalind Franklin arrived at King’s College in 1951, aged 31, she came on the heels of Schrödinger’s question (predominant question at the time) of: What is life? And her answer was: ‘life is animation of the inanimate’. Not especially deep, but a touchstone of the times.

In the developing years of particle physics, Einstein, Bohr (and many others) lent their expertise through relativity and quantum mechanics, helping advance molecular science and the biochemical industry. Immediately, geneticists discovered twenty different protein molecules present in living things. In addition, they found four proteins that only appear in DNA sequences, in variable combinations called nucleotides: two purines (adenine and guanine) and two pyrimidines (thymine and cytosine). We could produce a clearer compound if we said that each of the four nucleotides contains a sugar, a phosphate, and a base; and we might add, these nucleotides direct all aspects of DNA (bodily) function. We give the atomic structure of cytosine as an example of constituent simplicity: C4H5N3O (the other three have C5 and other variant elements).

Great strides were known when Rosalind Franklin arrived at King’s College. By the 1940s she had already perfected ‘atomic fission’ and ‘hydrogen fusion’. In 1944, Avery wrote a paper showing that the carrier of the genetic message was DNA and not just protein; In 1949, Chargaff determined the frequency and repeat propensity of nucleotides. Immediately after the breakthroughs of the first half of the century, Rosalind spent many hours perfecting X-ray diffraction techniques, exposing her body to excessive amounts of radiation in the process. Therefore, we know in retrospect that crystallography was her life and the probable cause of her death. But through a unique spectrographic technique, she extracted DNA images and allowed others to compete against the clock and claim the coveted Nobel Prize. Among many of her scientific breakthroughs, Rosalind’s greatest single success was DNA imaging.

Brenda Maddox writes a tragic but moving story of extraordinary intelligence, tireless dedication, and perseverance. Rosalind Franklin was one in a million. I read this book almost cover to cover. I couldn’t let go of it. She majored in physics and metaphysics as it pertains to the origins and destiny of our species.

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