Rosalind: DNA’s Invisible Woman, Excerpt by Jessie Mills

Rosalind: DNA’s Invisible Woman tells the true story of the woman who discovered the structure of DNA, whose work was co-opted by three men who won a Nobel prize for the discovery.

Her story is one of hope, perseverance, love and betrayal.

Driven by her faith in science, Rosalind Franklin persisted with her education in the face of formidable obstacles, including the de-reservation of women from war science. In Norway at the start of World War II, her place at Cambridge’s first women’s college was thrown into jeopardy. A decade later, she fled Paris upon the news that the research director at the State Chemicals Lab was having an affair. They continued to write to each other in secret. 

Rosalind knew when embarking on science, a gentleman’s profession, that the odds would be stacked against a woman’s success. But she did not foresee that her pay would later be cut on account of her age and gender, that she would be burned by the plagiarism rife among her male contemporaries or face her own battle with cancer. When she took a research post at King’s College London, the head of the physics department switched her subject to DNA at the last minute. She was tasked with discovering its structure using X-ray crystallography. Could she become the first scientist to map the DNA molecule and would the discovery ultimately be worth it?

When two researchers at Cambridge University, her alma mater, built a three-chain model of DNA weeks after seeing her lecture, she knew that it was wrong. Scientists at each of the three labs competing in the race to find DNA’s structure had guessed that the molecule had three chains. Her evidence proved them wrong. But would anybody listen?

This is the story of DNA that you won’t find in the history books…  

The woman behind science’s greatest discovery has been variously referred to as ‘an obsessive woman’, ‘difficult’, and ‘the dark lady of DNA’. Why was she called these names, and were they justified?

Written by journalist and former Wall Street Journal (PRO) editor Jessica Mills Davies, following nearly three years of intensive archival research, the novel aims to give Rosalind Franklin a voice for the first time in history. Her story is the most well-documented account of ‘the Matilda effect’ and its corollary ‘the Matthew Effect’, whereby women’s contributions to science and other professions are often ignored or misappropriated. The Exeter Novel Prize-longlisted novel is peppered with copies of original correspondence between her and her contemporaries, illustrating how three men got away with the biggest heist in scientific history.

Excerpt: Prologue

The chance of making a major scientific discovery is minuscule. Nearly half are by accident. Serendipity, or mishap by another name, pulls scientists from the clutches of flat Earths and illusory sirens. Controlled experiments frame those fallacies and rescript the world’s truths. At King’s College London, we were specks of dust in the gargantuan cosmos, investigating the very secrets of life. Progress was not a lightning-bolt moment, it was hours of toil, in a basement that smelled of mothballs. If you had asked me then if I knew we would find the structure of DNA, I would have said, simply, that the data speaks for itself. Its voice is audible for those who listen.

The mysteries of the universe reside in the simplest of shapes. The twisted loop of a figure of eight was visible in my X-ray photographs. Two strands of the genetic code entwined together beneath the glass, intersected at the centre, and flecked with atomic dots. I traced their smooth lines, back and forth, back, eight, back. The meandering curve of the infinity sign hides an eternity of secrets.

Part I, chapter 2 (Starry Night)

The noticeboard is empty except for a couple of brass drawing pins. The shiny tacks are clustered together like constellations. Each star has a lifespan of its own in the amaranthine universe, which always ends the same way, with those isolated stars coming together again into the collective mass of things. Maybe that’s the definition of infinity, a constant loop of time, polarisation and unity, with fragments of matter dispersing and going their separate way, before rejoining and recreating, only to begin again. It’s the one concept so near to God that no man has answered it.

Could the universe be forever folding in on itself, like the infinity sign, in never-ending fractals, such as the shoots of a leaf, or patterns on ice, expanding and shrinking, throughout time and space? The Einsteins raised the possibility. Like a star, the universe may shine most brightly before it collapses, folding back in on itself and everything around it, expanding before retracting once more, in infinite iterations.

What is certain is that the world is faster to turn than many of the individuals in it.

There are few other places to go, in the university, except for the chapel. The common room is reserved only for the men. Their bluster pours out into the corridor, where they can be heard posturing about politics and sport, or ‘feminine charms’. Such locker-room talk was rife in Cambridge. There was more discretion around intimate encounters and nighttime liaisons in Paris, where I have returned from four years working in France’s State Chemicals Lab.

There, silence could save you.

On my first day in the lab in London, a thick fog descends on the rooftops north of Temple station. It’s been nearly a decade since I left Cambridge’s first all women’s college to get a job in Industry. Snowflakes float on the breeze, and the gravestone paving is slippery with ice. William Waldorf’s gothic mansion, just up from Temple, blends into obscurity on the backstreets. A few yards away, the gateway to the university is visible through the mist. Once it was an inlet for merchant boats on the River Thames. Now it serves as a back-entrance for King’s College London. The throng of the Strand has moved, by necessity, from the river to the road.

Romanesque colonnades are perched incongruously on top of the arch, which plumbs the recesses below ground level. The gate doesn’t serve a purpose anymore, except as a curiosity. On the other side of the archway there is a quadrant of buildings, standing proud like tombstones, yet more vessels to entomb the history of progress.

‘Have faith, Rosalind,’ my father said to me as I was leaving home that morning, where I have moved back to live with my parents.

The Christian college of University College London isn’t where he expected me to work. The religious fervour has grown in him since helping my eldest brother David learn the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah two decades ago.

‘I’ve got plenty of faith, in science, Dad. Please, let me get on, or I’ll be late.’

You don’t need to be religious to have faith, because faith is just a kind of hope but one that you believe in, instead of wish for. It has the power to knit together the disparate parts of a broken heart or to achieve the unthinkable. That sort of faith doesn’t have to be in God, it could be in a person, or in yourself.

I chose to put my faith in science.

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Meet Jessica Mills

Jessica is a journalist and author. She has written for publications such as The Independent, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider, where she investigated the use of flammable cladding in hospital intensive care units in 2020.

Before that she was a member of the steering committee for Women at Dow Jones, where she spent several years as an editor and led the team that uncovered the misuse of funds at Abraaj.

Her debut novel tells the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the invisible woman behind the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize 2020.

Connect with Jessie

Website: Jessie Mills Davies (
Twitter: Jessica J. Mills Davies 💙 (@Byjessiemills) / Twitter
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Amazon Author Page: Jessie Mills: Books, Biography, Blogs, Audiobooks, Kindle
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