As the subtitle of this picture book about Rosalind Franklin suggests, there are many “unsung” heroes of science — and women are overrepresented in that category. Rosalind Franklin (1920−1958) produced research that dramatically advanced our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA and RNA, leading to lifesaving applications in the development of vaccines. Her childhood in England made her acutely aware of sexism and, eventually, the undercurrent of prejudice against Jews. Yet, as Lisa Gerin maintains throughout this tribute to Franklin’s life, the Jewish scientist always “took a closer look,” both at the subjects of her research and the world around her.
Prejudice against women’s intellectual achievement was much more apparent to young Rosalind than the more subtle barriers of English antisemitism. Nevertheless, her status as the only Jewish student in her boarding school made her an outsider. While her father objected to her career goals, her mother supported her. This vote of confidence was important to her progress as she entered the male worlds of physics and chemistry. After graduating from Cambridge University, she participated in experiments with X‑ray diffraction and ultimately produced “Photo 51,” the image of DNA’s double helix.
Gerin combines scientific accuracy with artful language to capture Franklin’s fascination with the universe. There are references to “bright blue liquids” in laboratory beakers, and to microscopic views of “a fairytale world of clustered molecules that looked like tiny snowflakes.” Rather than minimizing her intellect, these images convey to young readers the excitement Franklin experienced in visualizing concepts that had previously seemed abstract. Only intense commitment to her field allowed Franklin to persist when her contributions were ignored. Indeed, young readers learn the sad tale of how James Watson and Francis Crick refused to credit her discoveries when they published articles using her data. They would earn great acclaim, while she was left in the shadows.
By immediately transitioning to Franklin’s work on the polio vaccine following Watson’s and Crick’s betrayal, the author emphasizes resilience and courage as keys to Franklin’s success. In contrast to her male colleagues’ concerns with fame, Franklin remains practical and focused, even keeping samples of polio virus in her parents’ refrigerator. Readers may begin to wonder about the many gifted women who, unlike Franklin, were unable to continue working in their respective fields — depriving themselves, and the world, of new knowledge.
Fedele’s expressive images use color and light to depict the drama of Franklin’s life. Standing between a typewriter resting on a shelf and documents on a desk, Franklin looks out the window and into the sun, her shadow in the foreground. The alternating darkness and light accompany Gerin’s description of ambivalence: “Rosalind was frustrated, but she refused to give up on science.” Fedele couples her drawings with digitally created photographs, charts, and newspapers. A snapshot of Franklin watching a child receiving the new polio vaccine, for example, is joined by a formula on graph paper and a headline about the new breakthrough. Research, new technology, and its impact on the world appear as a natural sequence of events.
A young girl solving math problems and peering through a microscope grows up to pursue a career in science, eventually revealing the molecular structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s accomplishments are a tribute to her brilliance, her innate ability to look closely, and her stubborn refusal to accept arbitrary limits based on gender.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.