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'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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The chance of making a major scientific discovery is minuscule. Nearly half are by accident. Serendipity, or mishap by another name, pulls scientists from the clutches of flat Earths and illusory sirens. Controlled experiments frame those fallacies and rescript the world’s truths. At King’s College London, we were specks of dust in the gargantuan cosmos, investigating the very secrets of life. Progress was not a lightning-bolt moment, it was hours of toil, in a basement that smelled of mothballs. If you had asked me then if I knew we would find the structure of DNA, I would have said, simply, that the data speaks for itself. Its voice is audible for those who listen.
The mysteries of the universe reside in the simplest of shapes. The twisted loop of a figure of eight was visible in my X-ray photographs. Two strands of the genetic code entwined together beneath the glass, intersected at the centre, and flecked with atomic dots. I traced their smooth lines, back and forth, back, eight, back. The meandering curve of the infinity sign hides an eternity of secrets.
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‘How did you get the poliovirus past immigration?’ Francis asks from the hallway.
‘With a bit of ingenuity,’ I say, putting my book down.
‘You will tell me if you put it in the fridge, won’t you Rosy?’ Francis says. ‘So, you’re sure you won’t be joining us at the Eagle tonight?’
‘Not tonight, Francis, Odile and I have catching-up to do,’ I reply.
‘Ne t’inquiète pas pour eux,’ she says.
Odile grew up in Norfolk, but her French mother wanted her to be bilingual. She honoured her mother’s wish each time she spoke the language. She has given me the recipe for her mother’s French onion tart, who prescribes stock for that singular umami flavour. For breakfast, we have coffee with croissants and cheese. Odile’s accent is crisp, like glass. It is recognisably Germanic, a hangover from her time translating German to crack enemy code during the war. If anything, it is a Parisian accent, rather than textbook French.
‘I don’t like how they speak about you behind your back,’ she says once Francis has gone.
‘They don’t know you like I do.’
‘Scientists are in the business of asking questions,’ I say, adjusting the red patterned scarf around my head in the mirror over the fireplace.
Although the cancer has gone into remission, I cover my head with a scarf. It’s just until my hair grows back.
Odile pours us coffee from the cafetière.
I came to stay with the Cricks when Don was seconded to Cambridge so that we would have a chance of seeing each other again. From up high in the mountains during our trip to the Alps, the wings of my imagination could finally spread unencumbered.
At that moment, I didn’t need God. I just needed myself. My cancer went into remission the following year. So I travelled to Cambridge, where Don works, to live in the Cricks’ townhouse in Portugal Place. It has been a year since my diagnosis and even though my womb is gone, my mother still cannot accept the idea of me sharing a room with a man.
‘When you’re not married? Come on Rosalind, please!’ she said.
I packed my bags, promising not to stay with my parents for a moment longer than was necessary.
‘Scientists do indeed ask a lot of questions. It’s like that time Francis and Jim asked Dr Perutz if they could see your data,’ Odile says.
‘What?’ I respond.
‘Didn’t they tell you?’ Odile asks.
‘Tell me what?’ I say.
‘Well, I don’t like to interfere,’ Odile says, putting down her coffee cup.
‘Jim tried to describe your photograph to Francis, but you know what he’s like.’
‘You know, the one Maurice showed him. The one that was in the Medical Research Council report,’ Odile says.
‘Those reports are meant to be confidential.’
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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