issue Spring 2022

How We Rise

By Judy Masterson
Cover art for “Her Hidden Genius: A Novel”

RFU Trustee Rosalind Franklin, the unofficial tender of the life and legacy of her aunt, Dr. Rosalind Franklin, and Marie Benedict, who specializes in unearthing the hidden stories of important women, met by Zoom for a conversation about the author’s latest work of historical fiction, “Her Hidden Genius,” and the scientist who inspired it. They agreed at the outset that rather than dwell on the conflict and sexism that so often cloud the portrayals of Dr. Franklin, they wanted to focus on how she emerged from those challenges — unstoppable, without bitterness, determined to improve “the lot of mankind, present and future.”

Rosalind Franklin: So many women are drawn to her story, how it speaks to them. But so often we are creating a narrative of Rosalind’s life in its entirety, albeit short-lived, out of the two years she worked at King’s College. Talking about her life after, that’s the most important thing. What do you do with hardship? We can take that to Ukraine. We can take that to the world. Right? How do we rise above the ashes? That’s the strength of women. It’s how we rise.

Marie Benedict: Absolutely. It’s about what you do with the barriers, what you do with the conflict at the end. And that was so important to me to focus on in her book. If people are familiar with Rosalind, they are familiar with the conflict arising from her marginalization with the DNA discoveries, or a bit more if they’re in the scientific community. But most people don’t know about her life and legacy after the conflict over DNA. In “Her Hidden Genius,” I also focus on the lesser-examined work she did after the DNA controversy at Birkbeck on RNA and viruses, which is so fundamental to our understanding of COVID and the creation of the vaccines. All of that happened after the story that we usually talk about. Each of the women I write about wanted to do something and be something beyond what society typically had in store for women, and they were going to surmount the barriers. I feel as though Rosalind certainly embodied those qualities. Do you agree?

Image from a March 2022 Zoom discussion shows Marie Benedict, at left, connecting with Rosalind Franklin.

RF: I definitely do. Rosalind had a purpose. She really wanted to do something for mankind. She believed in her gift to do something more. She believed in and embodied what her family did through service but through intellectual academic pursuit in a way that would leave an everlasting impact. And I think that’s striking — the commonalities among people who have real drive to leave behind something beyond themselves, without feeling that anyone can stop them.

MB: Right. That perspective is what allows them to go forward and achieve far beyond expectations, far beyond the boundaries that, in the case of the women I write about, traditionally encircle them — the narrow sort of slotted roles they were consigned to. Rosalind so far exceeded that. Her legacy is so vast, and we don’t even know yet the full impact of her legacy, which is amazing.

RF: You are the first author to ever put Rosalind in the first person. You make her accessible. And that’s important, because most people aren’t going to read the Brenda Maddox biography. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel Laureate, said something to the effect that he doesn’t think we will solve climate change because the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” got 4 million views while funny dog tricks got 4 billion. But with “Her Hidden Genius,” you can read a narrative and a storyline. You are feeling somebody and you’re connecting with a character, not just learning about a character. And I think that allows your Rosalind’s story to resonate so much more freely, without diminishing her. Magic, really. It’s important what you are doing through all the stories you’re telling, which is making the women you write about more human and relatable.

“When I’m writing about Rosalind and the other women, I’m really trying to honor them as people, not just as a legacy, not just as a one-dimensional or even two-dimensional person, but as human beings and the modern resonance of their lives.”

MB: You’ll make me cry. When I’m writing about Rosalind and the other women, I’m really trying to honor them as people, not just as a legacy, not just as a one-dimensional or even two-dimensional person, but as human beings and the modern resonance of their lives. To know that you see that and recognize that really means the world to me. It’s not often that I get to connect with a family of the woman that I’m writing about. Your Rosalind in many ways is the ultimate embodiment of what I’m trying to do. And the fact that more people might know her, might recognize her humanity and also recognize the legacy that she’s left us that’s permeated so many areas of our lives, is really meaningful for me personally.

RF: It also goes to something important — a message for this generation, for readers and students who have chosen the path of health care, which is not a glamorous pathway. It’s not somewhere you become famous. It’s somewhere you are really of service to human health. And that goes to the idea that you don’t have to be seen, you don’t have to be recognized. You don’t have to be known to change the world. Rosalind was not awarded the Nobel. She wasn’t on the front cover until people wanted to give her credit. She lived under the radar, but she changed the way we live. I think that’s a message for our students — that life is not Instagram. It’s not instant gratification. It’s none of those things. And I think the (Rosalind Franklin) Rover embodies that too. You don’t know when you send it up — after spending years and years and years on it — if it will ever come to anything. That scientific pursuit, that kind of dedication without ever knowing if anything will come of it. Right? It’s a special kind of person who can make that happen.

MB: Absolutely. In your own family, there was a huge encouragement toward education and giving back. That Franklin familial quality of service seemed to have been embodied by Rosalind in her groundbreaking contributions to mankind’s greater understanding of itself. That’s the long game. And most of the men in her world, by contrast, were in it for whatever they could immediately glean, right? Whether it was Maurice Wilkins, or James Watson, or Francis Crick. The nobility of her pursuit, I think, is so clear. She engaged in science for the right reason: science for science, for the sake of mankind, over personal gratification and rewards. And that part of her story just jumped out at me when I was reading the letters and some of the research materials. It’s in such bold contrast to some of the men in her professional life. For example, the three-dimensional molecular model that Watson and Crick built had to have data in order to be successful. The only person doing the research to create the data was Rosalind. And she knew that, of course. So when she saw that model, I can’t help but think that she must have realized on some level that these men had access to her information. Now, what she knew about how they got it, how much they had access to, I kind of intentionally kept that vague in the book because I wanted her to rise up — the way she did — and walk away from it. I wanted to show the nobility of how she rose above the betrayal, refused to let it fester, and instead let it all go and moved forward, on to Birkbeck College to do groundbreaking virus research. She chose the bigger path, always.

RF: That’s a thread to today. What I love is also trying to bring hope and how that consistently stays relevant. It’s not a thing that’s static. It’s alive. It’s dynamic. And that same story transcends time and place.