Her Hidden Genius: A Novel
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"Fans of historical fiction will devour this complex portrait of a brilliant and trailblazing genius and the price she paid to advance the frontiers of science." (Beatriz Williams, New York Times best-selling author of Our Woman in Moscow)
The new novel from the New York Times best-selling author of The Mystery of Mrs. Christie!
She changed the world with her discovery. Three men took the credit.
Rosalind Franklin has always been an outsider - brilliant, but different. Whether working at the laboratory she adored in Paris or toiling at a university in London, she feels closest to the science, those unchanging laws of physics and chemistry that guide her experiments. When she is assigned to work on DNA, she believes she can unearth its secrets.
Rosalind knows if she just takes one more X-ray picture - one more after thousands - she can unlock the building blocks of life. Never again will she have to listen to her colleagues complain about her, especially Maurice Wilkins, who'd rather conspire about genetics with James Watson and Francis Crick than work alongside her.
Then it finally happens - the double helix structure of DNA reveals itself to her with perfect clarity. But what unfolds next, Rosalind could have never predicted.
Marie Benedict's powerful new novel shines a light on a woman who sacrificed her life to discover the nature of our very DNA, a woman whose world-changing contributions were hidden by the men around her but whose relentless drive advanced our understanding of humankind.
Also by Marie Benedict:
- The Other Einstein
- Carnegie's Maid
- The Only Woman in the Room
- Lady Clementine
- The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
Release date: January 25, 2022
Publisher: Audible Studios
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Her Hidden Genius: A Novel
February 3, 1947
A thin mist hovers over the Seine in the early morning air. Strange, I think. It isn’t yellow like the haze that floats over the murky Thames at home in London but a robin’s-egg blue. Could it be that the mist—lighter than fog, with fewer water molecules and less density—is reflecting the clearer Seine? I marvel at the meeting of sky and ground, breathtaking even in winter with the spires of Notre-Dame looming over the thin wisps of cloud. Papa would call it heaven touching earth, but I believe in science, not God.
I shake off thoughts of my family and try to simply enjoy the walk from my flat in the sixth arrondissement to the fourth. With each passing block, the cafés of the Left Bank, their sidewalk tables busy even on an early Monday morning in February, peel away, and by the time I cross over the Seine, I enter the orderly, elegant world of the Right Bank. Even though there are differences in the two arrondissements, they both bear scars of the war in their somewhat damaged buildings and still-wary inhabitants. It’s the same at home, although in Paris, the citizens rather than their structures seem to have born more of the brunt; perhaps the specter of the Nazi occupation still looms in their midst.
A rogue, disturbing question enters my mind, one with no measurable scientific foundation, I’m quite certain. When the Nazis shot innocent French citizens and blameless Jews, did molecules from the German soldiers who loaded the bullets pass through their victims? 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?
I doubt this is the sort of inquiry French physicist Jean Perrin anticipated when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1926 for proving that molecules exist. Imagine, I think with a shake of my head, that until twenty years ago, the very existence of the subuniverse that dominates my work was open to debate.
I stop short as I approach the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques. I am confused. Could this really be the venerable chemistry institution? The building has the patina of age but not necessarily the sort of respectability and stateliness I’d expected from an organization that has produced such excellent and innovative research. It could be any governmental building anywhere. As I climb the steps to the front doors, I can almost hear Papa critique my decision: The hard work and the commitment to science is commendable, he had said, but why must you take a position in Paris, a city still digging out from the weight of occupation and terrible loss? A place where the Nazis—he said the word with considerable effort—once governed, leaving traces of their evil behind them? With effort, I banish Papa from my thoughts.
“Bonjour,” I greet the receptionist in French. “Je m’appelle Rosalind Franklin, et j’ai un rendez-vous.”
To my ears, my voice sounds raspy and my French stilted. But the smartly dressed young woman—her lips a bright slash of red and her tiny waist encircled by a thick leather belt—replies with ease and a welcoming grin. “Ah, bienvenue! Monsieur Mathieu vous attend.”
“Monsieur Mathieu himself is waiting for me?” I blurt out to the woman, forgetting to hold my tongue for a moment before speaking, as I know I should. Without that pause and careful consideration of my words, I can be perceived as brusque, even combative in more heated environments. It’s a legacy of a childhood with parents who encouraged conversation and debate even with their daughter, I suppose, and a father who was expert at both.
“Monsieur Mathieu indeed!” a voice calls out from across the lobby, and I look over to see a familiar figure stride toward me with hand outstretched. “I couldn’t let our newest chercheur arrive without a proper greeting, could I? It’s a pleasure to welcome you to Paris.”
“What an unexpected honor, sir,” I reply to the senior scientist at the Ministry of Defense, who has a hand in much of the governmental scientific research in the country, thinking how wonderful my title chercheur—which means researcher—sounds coming from a native French speaker. Even though, on paper, it doesn’t appear quite as lofty as my former role of assistant research officer at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association (which we called, among ourselves, BCURA), chercheur sounds impossibly exotic. “I certainly didn’t expect to see you on my first day.”
“You are a protégé of my dear friend, Madame Adrienne Weill, and I would not want to be subjected to her wrath if I disappointed her,” he says with a wry grin, and I smile at the surprisingly impish gentleman, as well-known for his scientific prowess as his underground wartime service in the Resistance. My friendship with Adrienne, the French scientist who’d befriended me during my years at Cambridge, had yielded many unexpected benefits, not the least of which was the introduction to Monsieur Mathieu. It came at the most urgent and necessary time.
“You and Madame Weill have taken extraordinary care of me,” I reply, thinking of the many favors she’s done for me over the years. “You secured me this position, and she found me a flat.”
“An extraordinary mind deserves extraordinary care,” he says, the smile now gone and his face serious. “After seeing you present your paper at the Royal Institution in London in which you handily imposed order on the disordered realm of coal—and then watching you correct that other speaker’s measurements of X-ray diagrams so handily—I had to offer you a position here. How could we miss the chance to have a chercheur with such facile understanding of trous dans le charbon?” He pauses, then a smile reemerges, and he says, “Or holes in coal, as I’ve heard you describe it?”
He laughs heartily at his use of my English phrase “holes in coal” and the memory, much to my relief. Because when I stood up at the Royal Institution conference to point out the flaws in the speaker’s data, not everyone responded favorably. Two of the scientists in the audience called out for me to sit down—one even yelled “women should know their place”—and I could see the dismay register on several others’ faces. Not at the outbursts by the two scientists but at my audacity in correcting a male peer.
After we finish laughing, he compliments my research into the microstructure of coal. It’s true that I used my own methods of experimentation and an unusual form of measurement—a single molecule of helium—but I wouldn’t say the coal field has been completely organized as a result.
“You do know that I can apply my methods to subjects other than coal?” I offer, thinking how surprised my family would be to witness this rather deft management of French banter. Somehow, it is almost easier to exchange light small talk in French than English, where I am awkward—either too shy or too blunt. It’s as if the French language itself emboldens me and smooths over my sharp edges.
“We are counting on it,” he exclaims. Even though our laughter has subsided, his smile remains, and he adds, “Although you may soon see that a good flat is harder to come by than a good position for a scientist in postwar France, and you may be more effusive in your thanks to Madame Weill than to me.”
I know my great fortune that Adrienne was able to secure me a room in an enormous flat on rue Garancière only a few blocks from famous Left Bank haunts like the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots. The flat’s owner, a professor’s austere widow who has not relinquished her mourning black attire and prefers to be referred to only as Madame, had only taken me in at the request of Adrienne, who’d worked with her late husband; accommodations in Paris are otherwise almost impossible to find. Never mind the once-weekly use of the bathtub and the after-hours access to the kitchen, the flat’s soaring ceilings and the walls of bookshelves in the library-turned-bedroom are a dream.
“Come.” He gestures toward a long hallway extending from the lobby. “Monsieur Jacques Mering eagerly awaits his new chercheur.”
Monsieur Mathieu leads me through a warren of hallways, past three groups of white-coated researchers, including, much to my astonishment, several women. I’d heard that the French value intelligence above all else—whether it comes from a man or woman is of no matter to them—and I’d always dismissed these declarations as just talk, since they usually came from Frenchmen. But the sheer number of women working here is undeniable, a shocking difference from my last position at BCURA.
Finally, we stop. We stand before an open door that reveals a vast, airy space lined with black lab tables and equipment and a beehive of scientists, each so deeply engrossed in their tasks that our presence doesn’t even seem to register. This hum of scientific apparatus operating and bright minds engrossed in pioneering research is like a symphony to me. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if I did, it would resemble this room.
A man suddenly glances up. Bright green eyes meet mine, and crinkles appear at the corners as his face lights in a smile. The grin stays firmly fixed on his lips as he approaches us, making the high arches of his cheekbones more pronounced. I cannot help but smile in return; his joy is infectious.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Franklin, we have been most anxious to welcome you to Paris,” the man says. “Docteur Franklin, I mean.”
“Yes, Docteur Franklin,” Monsieur Mathieu says, “I’d like to introduce you to the head of the labo in which you’ll be working. This is Monsieur Jacques Mering.”
“A pleasure,” Monsieur Mering says, his hand outstretched in greeting. “We have been waiting for you.”
My breath catches at this warm welcome, and I think, It seems I’ve finally arrived.
February 3, 1947
“Let me introduce you to the labo,” Monsieur Mering says with a smile and a grand sweeping gesture around the room. With Monsieur Mathieu in tow, he steers me from table to table, interrupting the chercheurs and assistants midproject with such collegial ease they cannot help but be good-natured in response. How different is Monsieur Mering’s approach to his staff from Professor Norrish at Cambridge or even Dr. Bangham at BCURA, I think with a slight shudder at the memories.
Guiding me to an empty corner at a long, wide black lab table, my new superior sits down on a stool next to me. While Monsieur Mathieu looks on, Monsieur Mering says, “You have impressed us with your groundbreaking analysis of the atomic structure of coal, as I’m sure Monsieur Mathieu has told you. Your innovative experimentation methods allowed you a unique glimpse into coal’s structure and helped us understand the differences among types, and we’re hoping that our techniques here will give you the means to go even further in your exploration of minuscule worlds, in this case carbons. Monsieur Mathieu, as you know, is one of the foremost experts in X-ray crystallography, and to my great fortune, he has been my teacher. I hope to become yours.”
His words—such a straightforward entreaty—move me. I am not used to being spoken to by a scientific colleague as if he’s fortunate to work with me. The exchange always seems to go the other way.
Glancing at each gentleman, I answer, “It would be my honor. I’m looking forward to learning the technique and seeing where it leads me.” Ever since my meeting with Monsieur Mathieu three months ago, I’d been dreaming about what molecular worlds I might find using this somewhat new scientific approach. Through it, a narrow X-ray beam is directed onto a crystalline substance that locks the atoms in place and diffracts the X-rays, which make impressions on photographic film. When multiple photographs are taken at different angles and conditions, scientists can calculate the atomic and molecular three-dimensional structure of that substance by studying the pattern and measuring the diffracted beams. I never dared to hope that Messieurs Mathieu and Mering would have the same aspirations about me.
Monsieur Mathieu chimes in, “So are we. Our institution does not have particular industrial goals but instead maintains that if we allow our scientists the latitude to research and explore according to their interests and talents, we will find use in the discoveries. With your skills and our methods, we are very hopeful about the ultimate purposefulness of your work.”
As Monsieur Mathieu takes his leave, another chercheur appears at Monsieur Mering’s side, pulling him away and leaving me alone at what he has identified as my workstation. Here sits the sort of equipment I’d seen at other chercheur’s areas—a powerful microscope, an array of beakers and tubes, materials to prepare slides, and a Bunsen burner—but there is also a stack of papers sitting next to the sink assigned to my station. Flipping through them, I see that they are reports describing the projects of the labo’s other chercheursand Monsieur Mering himself. I settle in on my chair and lose myself in the descriptions of Mering’s elegant glimpses into clay, silicates, and other fine materials using X-ray diffraction techniques; if he shares only a portion of his crystallography skills with me, he will make a fine teacher. When I glance up, two hours have passed, and more than ever, I want to learn the language that X-ray crystallography can teach me, and then I want to subject any number of substances to its powers. How many minute realms can it give me access to? Worlds that can tell us the very stuff of life?
The minutes continue to tick by as I review the materials on the projects underway in the labo. I feel a gnawing in my stomach, but I ignore it. If I wish away the usual midday hunger, act as if it is happening to someone other than myself, perhaps such everyday needs and distractions needn’t dilute my focus or present obstacles. Besides, where would I even lunch, and with whom? At BCURA, I’d grown used to eating a home-packed lunch alone at a hastily scrubbed lab table while my male colleagues ate at a local pub. While I’d resented the alienation, I knew I was lucky to use my skills as a scientist to help serve in the war, instead of doing agricultural work in the Women’s Land Army as my father had advocated.
“Mademoiselle Franklin?” A voice rouses me, and I feel a slight pressure on my shoulder.
I pull my gaze away from the materials reluctantly and stare up into the face of a young woman, a fellow chercheur by the look of her lab coat, with bright blue eyes magnified by thick glasses. “Oui?” I say.
“We are hoping that you’ll join us for lunch.” She gestures to the group of lab-coated men and women surrounding me—perhaps a dozen in all—and I wonder how long they’ve been standing there, trying to get my attention. Mama always said I was impervious to the real world when I was deep in “my science,” as she called it.
After the relative lack of collegiality at BCURA—and at Cambridge before that, where I was often the only woman in a laboratory or a classroom full of aloof men—I scarcely know how to respond. Is this a real welcome or some sort of awkward, mandatory invitation? I don’t want anyone to feel obliged. I have grown used to working and dining alone, and I’d steeled myself for it before leaving London.
“Lunch?” I blurt out without taking that all-important pause.
“You do eat, don’t you?” the young woman asks, not unkindly.
“Oh my. Yes, of course.”
One of the men adds, “Most days, we lunch at Chez Solange and—”
The woman interrupts, “And then we engage in a special ritual afterward that we will share with you.”
I am swept up in their wave of spirited conversation and gestures as we leave our building and cross the Seine. In comparison to this radiant setting and these animated Parisians, London and its citizens seem gloomy. Why is it that the people who suffered firsthand through the occupation and evils of the Nazis seem more hopeful and positive than those who endured it from afar? Not that I’m discounting the horrible loss of life that the English people have suffered from the Blitz and on the battlefields, but they did not have to stare the Nazis in the face and watch them march down their streets like the Parisians.
While walking toward the restaurant, I listen as two of the chercheurs—one man and one woman—debate an essay in the political journal Les Temps Modernes, edited by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. While I’ve heard of the two writers, I’m not terribly familiar with the writings in their journal, and I’m rapt as the two researchers espouse their wildly different reactions to the essay yet somehow laugh amiably at the end of the argument. No mindless twaddle passes the lips of these vivacious scientists.
Over a traditional French déjeuner of cassoulet and salad, I stay quiet, absorbing the discussion, which shifts from Sartre and de Beauvoir to the current political situation in France. As men and women alike enter the fray of this good-natured argument, I am struck by the free flow of ideas between the sexes; the eloquent presentation of a position seems valued regardless of who’s speaking. The female chercheurs see no need for either the false demureness or strident argumentativeness that is pervasive among women in England outside the all-girl secondary school environments like the one I experienced at St. Paul’s. How unexpected is this aspect of French society. If anything, this French style of exchange mirrors that of the Franklin family, which most English folks regard as strange.
“What do you think, Mademoiselle Franklin?”
“Please call me Rosalind.” I’d noticed that they all refer to one another by their first names—not that I could recite them if quizzed—and I don’t want them to think I stand on ceremony. And I would certainly never insist on the formal, more appropriate “Docteur.”
“Well, Rosalind,” another woman—Geneviève, perhaps—asks, “what do you think? Should France go the way of America or the Soviet Union in its future political structure? What form should our fair country take as it rises up from the ashes of the Nazis’ devastation?”
“I don’t know if I like either option.”
Two men, Alain and Gabriel, I think, each of whom had been the strongest advocate for the opposing position, glance at each other, and Alain asks, “What do you mean?”
Gabriel chimes in, “Yes, tell us what you believe.”
Can they really be so interested in my views? Outside of my immediate family, I don’t find that most men are terribly intrigued by my opinions—on science or anything else.
“Well,” I allow myself that extra beat to assemble my thoughts. It’s a stratagem instilled in me by my longtime childhood governess Nannie Griffiths, who’d witnessed my propensity for unfiltered comments more times than she could count. Here, however, I decide not to temper my words or my feelings. “Both America and the Soviet Union are already bent on a destructive path with their stockpiling of weapons and building of ever-more deadly machinery. Haven’t we had enough of war and bloodshed? Wouldn’t we be better off focusing on unity than divisive identities?” My voice escalates as I articulate this position, one I’ve debated with my father. “It seems a fresh, new path would be better.”
The entire table has grown quiet. Even the side conversations that had been bubbling alongside the discussion of the politics of America and the Soviet Union have stopped. Every eye is upon me, and I feel like crawling under the table. Have I erred as badly as I did with Professor Norrish at Cambridge when I bluntly pointed out a crucial error in his research? That particular misstep had yielded an enormous row with Norrish as well as his insistence that I repeat his research, all of which derailed my doctorate by over a year. I don’t want to ever make such blunders again.
“This one seems a bit shy, but she has spirit,” Alain says to Gabriel in a voice he clearly expects me to hear. “Once she gets riled up, that is.”
“She does indeed,” Gabriel agrees, then adds, “That fire will be a welcome addition to the labo.”
I don’t know what to say. Am I meant to reply to these remarks, audible but ostensibly for each other? Could it be possible that they actually like my brusquely stated opinions, that they don’t find them offensive or unseemly for a woman?
As we begin to rise from the table and slide on our coats, one of the women asks, “On to Les Cafés de PC?”
“Mais bien sûr,” Alain answers.
“We’re going to another café? Don’t we have to return to work?” I ask, a little panicked at this seemingly long absence from the labo on my first day.
They laugh, and one of the men cries out, “The labo and Les Cafés de PC are very nearly one and the same! Come, we will show you.”
During our journey back across the Seine, one of the men points out the École de Physique et de Chimie, the very place where Marie and Pierre Curie made their famous discoveries that yielded the Nobel Prize. It thrills me to think that I’m acting as a physical chemist in the same space as my illustrious idol.
Once inside our building, instead of returning to our labo, the group heads to an unused part of the building that houses an empty laboratory. Without a word, the group disperses, and each chercheur undertakes a specific job. Three start rinsing laboratory flasks while another secures a bag of ground coffee from a locked cabinet, and another two take the newly cleaned flasks and begin boiling water and coffee in them over Bunsen burners. Within a span of several minutes, we are all sipping café from evaporating dishes and continuing the political conversation where it left off over lunch.
As I peer around the room at these scientists drinking coffee out of lab equipment while lounging on the tops of lab tables and desks, I break out in laughter at this incongruous scene. Soon, my colleagues are laughing alongside me. I open the door to a thought I’d previously told myself I could never entertain. Could it be possible that for the first time in my life, I’ve found a place to belong?
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