This engagingly direct biography of Franklin encapsulates her vital contributions to science and in particular the deciphering of DNA while providing a durable portrait of a forceful personality.
Maddox (D.H. Lawrence, 1994, etc.) doesn't take the combative, defensive tack that previous works in Franklin's defense have affected. She believes Franklin's work speaks for itself, and it does, though often through the dark matter of physical chemistry, which Maddox presents with as admirably accessible a touch as possible for the lay audience. Of course, the crux of the story revolves around her contribution to the understanding of the structure of DNA: her x-ray photograph was very much a part of the a-ha! that prompted Watson and Crick's double-helix formulation, even if she was not given credit at the time, but then neither were others who provided crucial insights, from Oswald Avery to Jerry Donohue. Just as interested as Maddox is in the professional work of Franklin—who also gained renown for her work on the chemistry of coal and on the tobacco mosaic virus—she is fascinated by Franklin's character, which could be prickly, reserved, suspicious, highly territorial, and abrupt. Franklin was a Jewish woman scientist from a well-to-do family, a highly suspect creature when it came to the English academic establishment, which was hardly a supportive environment for her. She was unafraid of speaking her mind yet lacking confidence and wary of her intuitions, fought tooth and nail for funding, was solitary, confrontational when cornered, a social innocent who had made science the core of her emotional life. She did have a personal life, well detailed by Maddox, with friends and travels. Importantly, she received considerable recognition for her work; Maddox regards the notion that she was crushed by the DNA ballyhoo as ridiculous. Franklin went on to do her best work thereafter, never accepting a role as “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology.”
At once a scientific exploration and a personal history, Maddox's biography is inviting and ultimately satisfying. (16 pages b&w photos)