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Her Hidden Genius


Her Hidden Genius

Beloved author Marie Benedict once again introduces readers to a forgotten woman who changed history. HER HIDDEN GENIUS is a fictionalized account of the life of Rosalind Franklin, whose life-changing discoveries were central to our understanding of the molecular structures of DNA.

With roots going back to King David, the founder of Jerusalem, the esteemed Franklin family is devoted to using their wealth and education to serve their extended relatives, the Jewish community and the citizens of England. Raised with a predilection toward acts of service, the Franklin children are highly educated and trained in the art of conversation and debate. In all of these regards, Rosalind was in perfect alignment with her family’s ambitions. Where she strayed, however, was in her desire to devote her life to science, using her brilliant mind to help others not through charity, good acts or a suitable marriage, but through a salaried position as a researcher.

"With her trademark compassion and admiration, Benedict displays a deep understanding of Rosalind as a woman (not just as a scientist), making a strong case for a revision to the male-dominated history we are so often told."

When we meet Rosalind, the year is 1947. She has just joined the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques in Paris, France, to continue her studies of the atomic structure of coal using X-ray crystallography. Having already worked in similar labs in England, Rosalind is anxious about her new colleagues. She has seen how other scientists, particularly men, look down on her or accuse her of being brusque or combative when she corrects them or offers suggestions simply because she is a woman.

Fortunately, Rosalind is immediately surprised by the team at the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques. The magnetic head of the lab, Jacques Mering, welcomes her warmly, praising her work and expressing his excitement at having her join them. Her fellow researchers --- men and women, she is delighted to note --- are equally friendly and inviting, and she is soon inducted into their found family, sharing lunches, political debates and even countryside hiking trips with them. Refreshingly, neither Rosalind nor her peers have been assigned research projects and are instead encouraged to explore their own interests while observing others’ in order to form an organic and open stream of dialogue and ideas. With the freedom to follow her impressive mind, Rosalind’s experiments soar. She is soon making waves in the science community and publishing a series of articles about her findings.

But Rosalind’s success comes at a price: she has caught the eye of Mering in more ways than one. Although she remains dedicated to her work, she cannot deny that even when she is immersed in X-rays and samples, she is always aware of her supervisor’s proximity. “Brilliant in the ways of the atom but oblivious in the ways of the world,” Rosalind begins an affair with Mering that can only end in heartbreak. When the relationship takes a turn, she flees for England, much to the delight of her imposing father, who believes her work to be a denouncement of the family’s priorities.

In 1951, Rosalind accepts a position as a Turner and Newall Fellow at King’s College, working in a department led by Professor John Turton Randall. Whereas in France she could study what she wanted, here she is assigned to use her knowledge of X-ray crystallography to map the critical part of a living cell, her initial foray into biology. She learns that there is a race to be the first to uncover the structure of DNA before other scientists, labs or countries do the same, and that Professor Randall believes she will be the one to help his lab make history. Rosalind is assisted by young doctoral student Raymond Gosling, and she is relieved when the two get on swimmingly, though she continues to struggle with fitting her progressive Parisian influences into a tighter, more conservative English ideal.

As Rosalind and Gosling inch closer to exposing the structure of DNA, another scientist, Maurice Wilkins (an assistant director of biophysics whose photograph of DNA provides some of the foundation for Rosalind’s work), begins inserting himself into her experiments. When her findings start to outshine his own, the tension mounts. With the stakes rising to be the first to definitively identify DNA and its role in biology, Rosalind becomes determined to continue to contribute to the scientific community she holds dear, no matter the cost to her reputation or safety.

Rosalind’s career, weighed down by discrimination, betrayal and misogyny, was cut devastatingly short, and she has been largely overlooked since. In HER HIDDEN GENIUS, Benedict shows her readers why this is a grave error. Just as she did in THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM, she proves herself adept at distilling complex scientific explanations and experiments (at least to my mind) without dumbing them down or patronizing her readers. The result feels like attending the best college lecture you ever had, equal parts educational and invigorating. Even better, she turns into poetry the most complex scientific ideas, evoking her own career as a writer when Rosalind explains, “I want to learn the language that X-ray crystallography can teach me…. How many minute realms can it give me access to?” As always, Benedict writes with grace and cadence, the beauty of her prose perfectly matched by the serious historical topics she writes about.

There is so much to gain from HER HIDDEN GENIUS: a critical understanding of the history of biological science, a respect for the forgotten women who contributed major findings to the scientific community, and best of all, a new feminist icon to celebrate. With her trademark compassion and admiration, Benedict displays a deep understanding of Rosalind as a woman (not just as a scientist), making a strong case for a revision to the male-dominated history we are so often told.

Like many of Benedict’s readers, I say this every time I finish one of her books: this is my favorite yet.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 28, 2022

Her Hidden Genius
by Marie Benedict

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728260108
  • ISBN-13: ‎9781728260105