“Her Hidden Genius” by Marie Benedict is aptly named. You will be astonished and captivated by the heroine, British-born Rosalind Franklin, who, as it turns out, in real life discovered the remarkable double-helix structure of DNA. Her discovery, and the battles she faced as a woman in science in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is a compulsive read. It is filled with fascinating characters who populate the scientific community. And not all of them, we learn, are good guys, despite the unwritten gentlemen’s agreement to rely on collaboration and respect of one another’s contributions. We learn, as the story unfolds, of how Franklin’s research was secretly used, without permission, by three now-famous scientists — Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins. Franklin’s research led to their winning the Nobel Prize.
The story begins in Paris shortly after World War II, where Franklin joins what turns out to be a supportive environment at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques. We see an example of Benedict’s ability to write evocatively as she describes how Franklin’s inquiring mind sees virtually everything through a scientific lens. While not religious, Franklin is sensitive of her Jewish heritage (having been in England, she and her privileged family escaped Nazi persecution). “Is Paris not only riddled with physical remains of the war but also permeated with microscopic scientific evidence of its enemies and victims as well, blended together in a way that would have horrified the Nazis? Would the detritus of Germans and Jews be identical under close analysis?” Franklin asks about her surroundings.
Benedict skillfully draws us into Franklin’s groundbreaking research using X-ray crystallography in her molecular biology work. Even without any scientific background, we easily grasp Franklin’s excitement at using this equipment to study crystals and their structure by means of X-ray diffraction. This is a process in which a beam of light or other system of waves spreads out as a result of passing through a narrow aperture or across an edge, allowing us, as Franklin exclaims, to “see the world of unimaginable minuteness.”
For personal reasons that we learn reveal a lot about her character, Franklin reluctantly chooses to leave Paris for a lab in King’s College, England, where, despite nearly insurmountable odds, she makes significant progress in her study of the structure of DNA. The tension in this main section is palpable, and the intrigue makes great page-turning reading. Eventually, Franklin moves on to a friendlier and more supportive environment to study another aspect of the micro universe, establishing some warm collegial friendships and making significant further discoveries. But the story here too is no fairy tale — however, to tell more would spoil the fun of following Franklin’s journey.
Benedict, as she does in all her books about fascinating, unsung females who have done incredible things in their lives, creates a flesh-and-blood heroine. Effectively written in the first person, Benedict brings us into Franklin’s very core. While likable, she is not warm and fuzzy. Although she has some dear friends, Franklin can have a hard time reading people emotionally, and tends to take herself very seriously. She also is guided by the belief that it’s not possible to have a family and pursue her passion. Franklin feels instead that it’s through science that she can most contribute to the good of humanity, which entails continually opposing her parents’ pressure to pursue their philanthropic undertakings, as well as to follow the more traditional role of wife and mother.
In “Her Hidden Genius,” Benedict has unearthed yet another complex and fascinating woman. A sample of her equally compelling books include “The Other Einstein” — the tale of Albert Einstein’s first wife, a physicist herself, and the role she might have played in his theories; the startling story in “The Only Woman in the Room,” about the brilliant inventor Hedy Lamarr (yes, that Hedy Lamarr, who was also a famous Hollywood actress), and “The Mystery of Mrs. Christie,” about the real-life disappearance of renowned author Agatha Christie.
As with her other novels, Benedict relies on a great deal of background research. Fortunately for us, “Her Hidden Genius” brings to light the outer accomplishments and inner mind of an extraordinary female scientist and her groundbreaking work in a thoroughly engaging manner.
Marie Benedict will be giving an online book talk on Thursday, March 10, from 7 to 8 pm at bit.ly/Hidden_Genius. “Her Hidden Genius” is available at Edgartown Books, and online, for $26.99.