I’m delighted to welcome Jessie Mills to the blog, with an extract from her novel, Rosalind: DNA’s Invisible Woman
Extract from ROSALIND: DNA’s INVISIBLE WOMAN, Part I, chapter 1 (Exodus | Shemot)
Norway, August 1939
As I stand in line with the other passengers, a dour-faced policeman snatches my passport from my hands. He looks up to examine me from beneath a deeply etched brow.
‘English?’ he asks.
His menacing eyes follow me as I walk past him and up the steps to board the ocean liner. The port town of Bergen is dotted with wooden houses in vivid hues of red and yellow. It is a different sight from the sleepy fishing village on our inbound journey when the Sheriff’s office was closed. I wished then that we could have flown from Gressholmen Airport, in one of the new metallic Imperial Airways planes. They were as big and shiny as the Zeppelins on the banners in Paris. But Father insisted that we couldn’t get the family Austin on one.
On our return, queues into the port stretch for several miles. The jetty is crawling with uniformed police in visor caps, which shield their faces from the stark Norwegian sun. The police are checking passengers’ papers before boarding the boat.
The ship has cast a deep and foreboding shadow over the steps.
As my feet navigate each rung, the iron staircase creaks and yawns. The structure is gnawing at the bolts on the side of the ship.
The staircase sways in unison with the waves as they lap with force against the steel stern. My feet move in time with the structure, back and forth like a pendulum. I vault two steps at a time, levering my body from every other step until the sun’s rays warm the cloth on my back.
Standing on the ship’s bow, I long to stay there forever. The last of August’s sun is twinkling softly on the water’s peaks. The waves are undulating gently against the hull as the boat crosses the water.
The journey out of the port is smooth. With each ripple and swell of the water, my mind drifts, first to home and then to college. I am due to return to Cambridge in less than a month. Suddenly, a thought grips me. At first, it is fleeting, but the more I try to suppress it, the harder it resurfaces, with agonising intensity. I may never return.
Seconds later, a pummelling sensation rams my stomach. The ship swings to one side, and the rail jolts against my ribs.
‘Navy ships?’ my mother asks.
A Cimmerian mist quickly settles on the water’s surface. Through the haze, a large vessel is visible.
My father’s response is inaudible.
As we descend the poorly lit stairwell at the side of the ship, a tide of panic sweeps over me. My parents and brothers spend the rest of the journey in silence.
Perhaps it is selfish to want the bourgeois life of a scientist, a gentleman’s profession. I like Maths too, as well as Chemistry. Yet while the rest of the world is upended by ideology, science is the last bastion deserving of my faith. From the tiniest molecule to the whole of the universe, science pervades every inch. It is the only language we have to make sense of it.
When you lose everything you ever knew to be true, all you can do is drive forwards to keep the ghosts at bay. Our family holiday to Norway began much like our trip two years before. There were few signs of what would transpire, or how it would change the course of our lives. Sometimes it only takes one event, one meeting, one person, or one kiss, for a life to change forever. That August was to be one of those events.
Here’s the blurb
‘A luminous, pin-sharp portrait of a true trailblazer. Mills’s writing simply glows.’ Zoë Howe, Author, Artist and RLF Writing Fellow at Newnham College, University of Cambridge
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.
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Meet the author
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.
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