Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Rosalind Franklin on Vacation

For the last year or so I have kept a copy of this photo on my computer desktop. When I first found it on some trip through the rabbit hole that is the Internet, I was so intrigued by it I had to keep a copy for future research. I don't know much about the short life of Rosalind Franklin, other than what one picks up here and there in books and blog posts about the history of women in science. This photo didn't seem to match up with the image I had of her in my head as a serious, somewhat frumpy scientist locked in a laboratory, and locked into a history where she was denied her rightful place as the person who figured out the shape of DNA.

This picture reminds me of Roman Holiday -- the film with  Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. What first drew my attention was the bicycle. It's a life-long dream of mine to ride a bike around Europe. I can almost feel the warm sun on her back and the roughness of the stone beneath her arms. I imagine the view from this spot and the bike ride she took to get here making it all the more beautiful. She looks relaxed, pensive, almost ordinary.

Rosalind Franklin looking out over the Tuscan scenery while on vacation, Spring 1950. (source: U.S. National Library of Medicine)

On a bike ride recently, when I stopped to take a picture of an autumnal vineyard in its full glory of ripe fruit and golden leaves, I thought about this image again. I wanted to know more about this Rosalind Franklin. Who was she with? What were they doing? What was she thinking about?

So I did a little light digging and came across a short but beautiful letter to The Lancet from her sister, Jenifer Glynn, "The art of medicine: Remembering my sister Rosalind Franklin (pdf)." In it, Glynn briefly discusses her sister's life prior to her time at King's College, before explaining how things went wrong for her afterward. This passage about her time spent away from the lab was especially compelling.
Earlier, following a Cambridge University degree in physical sciences, she had done a PhD on the molecular structure of coals and carbons based on her wartime work at the British Coal Utilisation Research Association. It was her growing distinction in this field, together with a series of lucky chances, that took her to the laboratory in Paris. And besides being productive scientifically, Rosalind’s years in Paris gave her scope for the travelling and walking that were so important in her life. The pile of family letters talk far more about her holidays, her friends, or living conditions in postwar Paris, than about her work. She would go off with friends cycling for weekends, or for longer trips to Italy or to the Alps. She had a love of grand scenery, and became a formidable climber.

It was not easy to leave Paris, but family and work both pulled her back to London. It was, as she reluctantly realised, time to decide where her future lay. She investigated various possibilities on her visits back home, before applying, without too much enthusiasm, for an ICI or a Turner and Newall Fellowship at King’s College. However, the chance to turn her expertise
This photo was taken in 1950, the year she made the move from Paris to King's College. Was it taken while she was considering her options? Or had she already made up her mind by the time of this trip to Italy?

This photo was taken by Vittorio Luzzati, a family friend with whom she traveled regularly. He was also a scientist working in France, so perhaps they chatted about their projects while ambling around the countryside. Or perhaps they skipped the shop talk and enjoyed just being outside in the world. He took many photos of her during their trips together, and even created a documentary in 2003 about her life and work, Rosalind Franklin: DNA's Dark Lady.

I'm still curious about this image and about this period in Franklin's life. That letter from Jenifer Glynn is from the longer book she wrote, published in 2012, My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir. I think I will add both of these to my library request list, and spend some quiet time this autumn with Rosalind.

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