‘A luminous, pin-sharp portrait of a true trailblazer. Mills’s writing simply glows.’ Zoë Howe, Author, Artist and RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge
Rosalind: DNA’s Invisible Woman tells the true story of the woman who discovered the structure of DNA, whose work was co-opted by three men who won a Nobel prize for the discovery.
Her story is one of hope, perseverance, love and betrayal.
Driven by her faith in science, Rosalind Franklin persisted with her education in the face of formidable obstacles, including the de-reservation of women from war science.
In Norway at the start of World War II, her place at Cambridge’s first women’s college was thrown into jeopardy.
A decade later, she fled Paris upon the news that the research director at the State Chemicals Lab was having an affair. They continued to write to each other in secret.
Rosalind knew when embarking on science, a gentleman’s profession, that the odds would be stacked against a woman’s success. But she did not foresee that her pay would later be cut on account of her age and gender, that she would be burned by the plagiarism rife among her male contemporaries or face her own battle with cancer.
When she took a research post at King’s College London, the head of the physics department switched her subject to DNA at the last minute.
She was tasked with discovering its structure using X-ray crystallography. Could she become the first scientist to map the DNA molecule and would the discovery ultimately be worth it?
When two researchers at Cambridge University, her alma mater, built a three-chain model of DNA weeks after seeing her lecture, she knew that it was wrong.
Scientists at each of the three labs competing in the race to find DNA’s structure had guessed that the molecule had three chains. Her evidence proved them wrong. But would anybody listen?
This is the story of DNA that you won’t find in the history books…
The woman behind science’s greatest discovery has been variously referred to as ‘an obsessive woman’, ‘difficult’, and ‘the dark lady of DNA’. Why was she called these names, and were they justified?
Written by journalist and former Wall Street Journal (PRO) editor Jessica Mills Davies, following nearly three years of intensive archival research, the novel aims to give Rosalind Franklin a voice for the first time in history. Her story is the most well-documented account of ‘the Matilda effect’ and its corollary ‘the Matthew Effect’, whereby women’s contributions to science and other professions are often ignored or misappropriated.
The Exeter Novel Prize-longlisted novel is peppered with copies of original correspondence between her and her contemporaries, illustrating how three men got away with the biggest heist in scientific history.
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‘Doctor Franklin, welcome.’
I clasp my hand over my mouth, not expecting anyone to have heard my profaning. Professor Randall is standing in the lit entrance at the top of a flight of steps. After several seconds of looking around to see where the voice was coming from, I make out his silhouette. He is shorter than I remember from our first meeting a year ago, at least now that I’m in inch-high brogues. He is wearing tortoiseshell glasses that frame his ovate forehead, with a colourful polka dot bow tie fastening his shirt collar, and a fresh flower positioned carefully in his buttonhole. He’s smiling, but his eyes curve down slightly at each corner, as though they have been etched by past disappointments.
The turnstile scrapes against the floor as I push it open. With hands still in his pockets, the Professor nods at me, inviting me in to follow his lead. Inside the university building, the steps appear to be made of stone, possibly limestone or granite, but they’re polished to the same high sheen as the marble statues on either side of the hallway.
‘As I said in my letter Dr Franklin, it’s more important while you’re with us that you investigate biological fibres than solutions.’
The Professor’s Lancashire drawl is unmistakable.
‘I received your letter, Professor,’ I reply, hesitantly.
‘There’s no need to fret,’ he says. ‘I’ve reassigned you to deoxyribonucleic acid.’
‘But the fellowship committee enlisted me to study solutions.’
‘That may be so, but you’re needed here. We’ve made some fascinating progress with DNA.’
The ceilings in the main corridor of the university are vertiginous, as if they were designed to angle the students’ ambitions north of their navels. The plaster is intersected by wrought-iron chandeliers midway between each buttress. Tall cabinets line either side of the corridor. They are sparsely filled with leather-bound books. On closer inspection, they aren’t encyclopaedias, but a collection of handwritten minutes from the Senate. The hallowed names of science’s great and good are engraved in the alabaster walls in an enclave off the main hallway. I search among the names for Florence Nightingale.
‘There’s something you should know,’ I finally confess.
‘I know everything there is to know about your work at the Coal Board and diffraction studies in Paris. The fellowship committee was very thorough, and Charles said good things about you,’ the Professor replies.
‘You should know, Professor, that I’m ignorant about anything…biological.’ I stutter, looking down at my shoes.
Convinced that I have failed at the first hurdle, a chemist in a world of botany and flora, and at pains not to disappoint my friend, the Professor has to know my doubts, in case he later finds me to be a fraud. Crystalline coal is a different substance entirely from organic specimens.
Professor Randall stops and sighs. He turns to me, wearily, without lifting his hands from his pockets.
‘The trouble is, Dr Franklin, biologists are ignorant about physics. They have none of the rigour that physicists have.’
‘Look,’ the Professor adds, lowering his voice.
He nods when someone passes us in the corridor, in a bid not to let anyone hear what he’s going to say next.
‘They laugh at us you know,’ he says.
‘The old guard. They’ve got no imagination at the Medical Research Council.’
To the rest of the world, the Professor’s department is a spectator sport, a big tent full of different disciplines. He’s assembled an eccentric melange of biologists, chemists and physicists. There are four biologists, two chemists, scores of biological and physical technicians, and two dozen graduates. It’s a laughing-stock to the older scientists. They call it ‘Randall’s Circus’.
‘What I’m doing here is a new type of physics,’ the Professor continues. ‘I call it biophysics. It’s a mix of biology and physics, and it’s the only way that we can get a handle on DNA’s structure. If we can do that, then perhaps one day we will understand the genetic code.’
‘Surely nucleic acid’s too simple to be of any importance in the scheme of life,’ I say.
The Professor starts to hum to himself and walks on ahead.
‘I suggest you read the work of Oswald Avery at the Rockefeller.’
‘Do you mean his Frankenstein experiment?’ I reply, scrambling to keep up with him.
‘Precisely,’ he says.
Before I left London for Paris, the periodicals had said that when Nobel nominee Oswald Avery mixed a denatured specimen of pneumonia with DNA, he resurrected the dead virus. The mice immediately dropped dead in his lab. Everyone was comparing him to Dr Frankenstein.
‘Now is it biblical, Dr Franklin? Or is it science?
Jessica is a journalist and author. She has written for publications such as The Independent, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider, where she investigated the use of flammable cladding in hospital intensive care units in 2020.
Before that she was a member of the steering committee for Women at Dow Jones, where she spent several years as an editor and led the team that uncovered the misuse of funds at Abraaj.
Her debut novel tells the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the invisible woman behind the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize 2020.
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