Nursing Book Club

Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict

This historical novel looks at the dark side of the discovery of DNA

James Watson won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the double helix structure of DNA. He maintained the answer to the puzzle came to him in a dream in 1953. Her Hidden Genius, a novel by Marie Benedict, tells a different story

Her Hidden Genius is historical fiction, but the facts behind it are very real. Protagonist Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. Hired by the British Coal Utilisation Research Association in the ‘40s, she developed equipment that allowed crystals to be photographed with a precision previously unknown.

Franklin’s research in the science of crystallography and the use of X-ray diffraction led her to the famous Photo 51. Taken by Franklin’s assistant Raymond Gosling at King’s College London in 1952, the photo clearly showed the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.

Professional Rivalries

Meanwhile, Watson and Francis Crick were also studying the structure of DNA at Cambridge University, using a model-based approach that Franklin didn’t consider entirely scientific. Franklin was a slow and methodical researcher who believed models and theories should follow the data rather than the other way around, a conviction that held her back in the race for discovery.

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Somehow, Franklin’s unpublished data found its way to Watson’s lab in early 1953. When Watson and Crick published their findings that spring, they barely even acknowledged her work. It wasn’t until years after her premature death that her role in this vital discovery became known.

A Portrait of 1950s Bias

Her Hidden Genius suggests that Franklin’s manner, her methods and her wealthy Jewish background, along with the fact that she was a woman working in a male-dominated field in the 1950s, made her an easy target for exploitation.

Although Franklin died of cancer and pneumonia in 1958 (possibly as a result of her frequent exposure to X-rays, another sign of how different those times were), author Marie Benedict brings the scientist to life for us. The novel vividly describes Franklin’s friends and relatives, as well as her clothing and the decor of the day.

RN Career Events

Although the author stays true to Franklin’s history, as a piece of historical fiction, the novel is able to invent dialogue to flesh out the motivations of the real-life people involved.

Franklin’s story is one that evokes strong emotions. It wasn’t until after Watson published his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, which presented Franklin in very unflattering terms, that people who had known and worked with her began to speak up to defend her work.

Her Hidden Genius is a fascinating dive into the world of a female scientist determined to push forward with her commitment to research despite countless obstacles. Although sometimes downbeat, it’s encouraging to anyone who hopes that truth will win out, no matter who is doing the telling.

Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks, 2022)


CHRISTINE CONTILLO, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse with more than 40 years of experience, ranging from infants to geriatrics. She enjoys volunteering for medical missions.


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