Ros­alind Looked Clos­er: An Unsung Hero of Mol­e­c­u­lar Science 

Lisa Gerin; Chiara Fedele, illus.

  • Review
By – October 3, 2022

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 (19201958) 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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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