(Franklin, Rosalind) Franklin, Muriel


  • First and only edition of this rare biographical sketch published privately by Franklin’s mother Muriel, and signed by her at the end of the introduction. Though it is undated, she mentions the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson and Crick in 1962, and so this pamphlet must have been published between then and her death in 1976. The possibility arises that it was written in part as a response to her daughter’s relative lack of recognition during her lifetime, and the sad fact of her ineligibility for the Prize after her death. One copy of this pamphlet resides in the Franklin archive at Churchill College, Cambridge, but a WorldCat search locates no other institutional copies, and this is also the only one that has appeared in auction records.

    Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was a biochemist whose research elucidated the microstructures of coal and virus RNA, but she is best known for her pioneering X-ray crystallography of the DNA molecule at King’s College, London. It was this work, in particular the famous “photograph 51”, that convinced James Watson and Francis Crick that the structure of DNA was a double helix. Franklin’s work was published third in the series of Nature papers that announced the discovery, and she received only vague acknowledgement from Watson and Crick at the time. Franklin died of ovarian cancer a few years later, and it was not until 1961 that Francis Crick admitted in a letter to Jacques Monod that hers was “the data we used” to determine the molecule’s structure (Nature Correspondence 425, September 2003). Watson’s controversial account of the discovery, The Double Helix, and a 1975 biography by Franklin’s friend Anne Sayre renewed public interest in Franklin’s role in the DNA story, and she has now received the public acclaim that was not forthcoming at the time.

    Franklin’s mother Muriel, who was reportedly inconsolable during her daughter’s illness, wrote this biography “primarily for [Rosalind’s] nieces and nephews, of whom she was very fond, but who were too young when she died to keep more than a dim memory of her... But perhaps those also who were born after her death may care to know a little about this aunt who died so young - she was only thirty-seven - so bravely, and in her short life achieved so much” (introduction).

    The sketch begins with childhood memories and describes the young Rosalind as possessing “a natural efficiency in whatever she was doing... and she could never understand why everyone could not work as methodically, and with equal competence” (p. 3). She was “a busy little girl, full of purposeful energy” whose approach to life was always “logical and exact. Even as a tiny child she could never accept a belief or statement for which no reason or proof could be produced. Particularly this applied to religion. On one occasion cross-examining me on the possibility of the existence of God, and being totally unconvinced by my replies to her searching questions, ‘Well anyhow,’ she triumphantly demanded, ‘how do you know He isn’t a She?’” (pp. 4-5).

    Another character trait that followed Franklin into adult life was her tempestuous personality, driven by passion that was “deep and strong and lasting, but she could never be demonstratively affectionate or readily express her deeper feelings in words. This combination of strong feeling, sensibility and emotional reserve, often complicated by an intense concentration on the matter of the moment, whatever it might be, could provoke either a stony silence or a storm” (p. 5). “She was always a little incalculable; a person of moods... and a depth of feeling not always realised by those who did not know or understand her very well” (p. 18).

    Muriel goes on to describe Franklin’s school days, her various interests (science was decided on as her career very early), and her love of travel and the outdoors, particularly hiking and swimming, and her delight in sewing, fashion, cooking and serving as hostess for her friends and family. Franklin’s research career is, as to be expected, not covered in depth, but her mother does write that, “The first two years at King’s College were troubled by petty rivalries and jealousies that she felt acutely. Her mind was clear, incisive, and quick thinking, and her methods and conclusion often unconventional and original. Like most pioneers of thought she met opposition, and when, as often happened, she could not persuade colleagues to follow at her pace, she was apt to become impatient and despondent. It was at King’s College that she began her investigations into the nature of nucleic acid and the structures associated with it; here she also developed a new and highly ingenious and complicated technique of taking X-ray photographs of deoxyribonucleic acid that produced remarkable results, and made her reputation in this field” (pp. 16-17).

    Muriel Franklin closes with a touching description of her daughter’s fortitude during her long illness, and finally takes comfort in the the fact that, had she lived, she may have received the Nobel Prize alongside Watson and Crick and been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Included at the end of the pamphlet is a tribute originally published in Nature by X-ray crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, with whom Franklin had studied viruses in the last years of her life. The pamphlet is illustrated with a wonderful photo of a young and vibrant Franklin on a hiking trip in Norway.

    A rare and moving account of the life of this great scientist.

  • Frome & London: privately printed for Muriel Franklin by Butler & Tanner Ltd., [undated but sometime between 1962 and 1976]. 28-page pamphlet, stapled. Original blue-green wrappers, title to upper wrapper in black. Frontispiece from a photograph of Franklin. Wrappers just a little rubbed and toned at the extremities, the contents fresh and clean. Excellent condition.

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