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Gender and Science in the DNA Story

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Science  08 Nov 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5596, pp. 1177-1178
DOI: 10.1126/science.1078331

Rosalind Franklin

Dark Lady of DNA

Brenda Maddox

HarperCollins, London and New York, 2002. 400 pp. £20. ISBN 0-00-257149-8. $29.95, C$44.95. ISBN 0-06-018407-8.

The 1968 publication of James Watson's two-part thriller, The Double Helix, in The Atlantic Monthly left both the scientific and literary worlds atwitter. I still have my tattered copies, bought on my salary as a genetics graduate student. But neither then nor later did I twitter. Instead, I raged and wondered—as I sometimes, although far less frequently, still do some 34 years later—whether I or any woman would ever be welcome in the world of science. What I did not know at the time, but have since learned from reading Brenda Maddox's able, balanced, and well-researched biography Rosalind Franklin, was that Watson's account was a scandal even before publication. In fact, it seems that the Harvard Board of Overseers refused to publish it in book form because of its self-aggrandizement and scurrilous portraits of all of the principals in the story.

Franklin, however, was the only woman in on the discovery of DNA's double helix, and, having died of ovarian cancer a decade before Watson's account was published, she was no longer around to defend herself. Worse yet—as I suspected even as a scientific youngster, and as Maddox persuasively confirms—the ugly, distorted picture of a shrill, frumpy, unimaginative scientist was a construction essential to Watson's depiction of himself as a prototype of the scientist hero. It was not carelessness that led Watson to attack Franklin, even ignoring his own friendly scientific interactions with her in the years after the elucidation of DNA structure. Rather, the narrative structure demanded that he distort her in order to remake himself as the hero of modern science.

Maddox's book restores some of what Watson robbed from us. We now have answers to a range of questions about science, politics, women, and ethics. Questions such as: (i) What was it like to be both a woman and a Jew devoted to science in England in the 1940s? An answer by way of some examples: When Franklin entered the women's arm of Cambridge University, women were not accepted as “members of the university” and not entitled to earn a degree, but only something called a “decree titular.” When she, already an accomplished scientist, later joined the staff at King's College, she learned that women were not allowed to lunch in the senior common room. (ii) Did Watson steal Franklin's data (the crucial diffraction photograph of DNA)? The answer: “Not exactly.” Maddox offers a careful assessment of this question and lets Watson off the hook, sort of. (iii) Did Maurice Wilkins share Franklin's data without her knowledge or permission and, after her death, fail to give her proper credit? The answer: “Yes.” Maddox's consideration of this issue leads me to think that the book should be used as a case study for graduate training in research ethics. (iv) What was Rosalind Franklin really like? Answer: She was lively, vivacious, defensive, energetic, an outdoors enthusiast, private and scared of intimacy, determined, fierce, and in love with science. In short, she was as complicated as any man, but her professional life was forever a struggle because of her sex.

Who then, is the real hero of science—a woman with cancer, crawling in pain up long flights of stairs to keep working so that she could provide co-workers, who depended on her, a position even after she died? Or a man who used her data without full authorization or an offer of credit, and who then sullied her reputation after her death? In her answers to these questions, Maddox is never simplistic. She uses Franklin's newly available personal letters and papers as well as interviews and careful study of previously published accounts to provide a nuanced rendering of this important scientist.

Many introductory biology courses still use the DNA story, as told by Watson, to exemplify the glory and excitement of scientific discovery. I plead with the teachers of such courses to read Maddox's book. Then they need to ask themselves, when they use The Double Helix, what message do they send to young women who might have the talent and interest to become scientists? And what message do they send to all future scientists—male and female alike—about research ethics and the value of generous collaboration? Indeed, in choosing a narrative of individual glory developed at the expense of a pioneer woman scientist, what message have they sent to all future citizens who take a biology course in college about the ethical status and trustworthiness of science? Isn't now the moment to switch to a careful, well-documented account of scientific practice? Why not assign Maddox's Dark Lady, and consign The Double Helix to a dark backshelf of history?

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