Her Hidden Genius: A Novel
By Marie Benedict
March is Women's History Month. So, it was perfect timing to read a new historical fiction book on the life and work of a preeminent woman in scientific history, Rosalind Franklin. In Her Hidden Genius, author Marie Benedict sculpts a snapshot rendering of Rosalind Franklin from 1947 to 1958 using known historical facts as an armature. It's written in the first-person as though narrated by Franklin herself.
The book opens with postgraduate physical chemist Franklin arriving in Paris in 1947 to join a new lab, where she learns and masters x-ray crystallography techniques. There, she is happy within a scientific milieu that is a far friendlier, far more egalitarian cry from that of her former London surroundings. The novel follows her subsequent return to England, to King's College London, where she has been recruited to apply her x-ray diffraction expertise to DNA rather than to coal and carbons – and so her work takes on a biological twist. It is here where she and her research assistant Raymond Gosling first discover DNA's A and B forms (hydrated DNA adopts the A-form while dehydrated DNA takes on the B-form), deduce that phosphates lie on the edges of the DNA molecule, and first suggest DNA's helical structure. The moment at which she beholds their stunning photograph of B-form DNA – none other than Photo 51 – is wonderfully depicted.
Throughout the book, we are also privy to Franklin's tension with members of her family that disapprove of her career path. We witness the escalation of the infamous friction with her colleague Maurice Wilkins, who, in his bitterness over feeling that his position in the lab was usurped, slips her early findings to Francis Crick and James Watson over at the Cavendish. What ensues is a tense race to discover and publicly announce the structure of DNA: the misguided Linus Pauling at Caltech versus Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling at King's College London versus Crick and Watson at the Cavendish (and colluding Wilkins, plus Linus Pauling's son, whom they roped into their team). The book conveys Franklin's deep unhappiness during these years back in England, the cherry on top being, of course, her discovery that Watson and Crick are publishing work that appropriates her own findings. In spite of this, the narrative follows Franklin as she moves forward and builds her own research group working on viral RNA at Birkbeck College. And then there is her terminal cancer diagnosis – a tragic ending in which a scientific legacy prematurely outlives the person.
Overall, Benedict paints a portrait of an upstanding, headstrong, and brilliant mind who lives by a commitment to exactitude and rigorous evidence, and who succeeds in her search for scientific truths at a time when science truly was a sea of boys' clubs. She navigates misogyny in forms both blatant and subtly (often-unintentionally) insidious, at all levels from coworkers' jibes to lab heads' offhand comments to well-intending family members' advice to assumed societal undercurrents. Some of it still hits home. Women readers, regardless of whether they have spent time in science or not, will likely see echoes of still-current realities within the portrayals of subdued slights and subtle word choices.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dialogue in the book didn't skimp as much on details about the actual science as a historical fiction novel with broad appeal might. It's still general enough that even I – with next to no knowledge about crystallography – can follow. The dialogue between Franklin and Ray Gosling in particular conveys the logic behind the steps they took to reach their groundbreaking discoveries, which I found fascinating and telling of just how detail-oriented Franklin was.
The book portrays her brilliance in science wonderfully, but I did wonder about one aspect of her depiction. Real-life Franklin identified as culturally Jewish but was not religious, instead embracing humanism. (She was quoted as having said, "I maintain that faith in this world is perfectly possible without faith in another world.") But the Franklin in Her Hidden Genius is touchy to an odd extreme, carping at any and all religious references that other characters mention. Those include metaphors like "x is the Holy Grail of y" that have become so integrated into the English language that their religious connotations have been all but lost in ordinary usage: "Birkbeck [is] a little like heaven on earth. If I believed in all that"; or, "You're like a guardian angel... Even though I don't believe in angels, of course." Admittedly, I found that character-Franklin's frequent need to insert her irreligiousness into conversations grew irritating, even as someone who is also areligious. Just a minor snag that distracted me as I tried to read.
In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Benedict writes that the depiction of Franklin is based off Anne Sayre's 1975 book, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, which Franklin's friend wrote and published as an angry response to Watson's 1968 book The Double Helix, in which he denigrates and defames Rosalind Franklin. To be fair, I haven't read either.
Her Hidden Genius is a fine addition to Benedict's oeuvre of historical fiction novels about women who were missed by the limelight of history. It's a well-researched and three-dimensional tribute to a remarkable scientist.