Marie Benedict is a novelist with a mission.
Novelists don’t often have missions, besides writing a great book and selling a lot of books. Benedict wants to do those things, too, but her goal is to tell the stories of women who made great contributions to the world but didn’t get the credit they deserve.
The Sewickley-based author’s newest book (just published on Jan. 25), “Her Hidden Genius,” is about the mid-century British scientific researcher Rosalind Franklin, who did much of the foundational work in discovering the structure of DNA.
It’s common knowledge that the Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA’s double helix went to a team of men — Watson, Crick and Wilkins. But few know about Franklin — who died four years before the prize was awarded — and her groundbreaking contribution.
Benedict says there are a lot of fabulous, historical women who led incredible lives. But in choosing a subject to write about, they have to meet two criteria. First, they have to be women who have left a legacy. “I’m definitely interested in women who left something for the future, something that we may use every day or benefit from, but we don’t know to whom we’re beholden,” she notes.
“The other is that there has to be something sort of intrigue about the woman’s life, especially if they’re dealing with an issue that has modern-day resonance.”
In “Her Hidden Genius,” the issue that Franklin deals with every day is the relegation of women in sciences. Female scientists were often marginalized and their contributions were suppressed, she says.
Marie Benedict is the pen name of Heather Terrell, who has published books under her own name as well. But since the books about overlooked women took a new direction, she took a new name to write them. (She is better known as Benedict now and she prefers using that name.)
Before she became a novelist, the Upper St. Clair High School grad was a lawyer for a major firm in New York City for a decade. The seeds for her new career were planted in childhood by a beloved aunt, who was a nun, a poet and a professor at Carlow College.
“She gave me ‘The Mists of Avalon’ (by Marion Zimmer Bradley), which was totally groundbreaking for its time,” says Benedict. “It was a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the women. And we do that now, but it had really not been done very much at that time. It was like one of those moments when I just opened my eyes and said, ‘Oh, my gosh; history is not really what I thought it was.’ And there are all these stories and voices and perspectives that really round out what history really is.”
Rosalind Franklin was an obvious choice for Benedict’s latest book, though her single-minded pursuit of science and relatively short life narrowed some of the usual avenues for dramatic tension.
The novel starts with Franklin’s brief scientific sojourn in postwar Paris, where the egalitarian pursuit of science and collegial atmosphere contrasts with her later work in class-conscious, tradition-bound England.
“She made the ultimate sacrifice for her scientific discoveries,” says Benedict. “She really put herself in harm’s way to make these world-changing findings. And the second thing was that she’s not just responsible for understanding the double helix structure of DNA. She did all this other work afterward on RNA, on viruses.”
The latter suddenly seemed extremely timely when Covid hit in 2020 and RNA-based vaccines were able to be developed in record time.
“I really wrote the book during Covid, as lockdowns were unfolding all around us,” says Benedict. “As we were starting to work towards an understanding of Covid and coming up with a vaccine, I realized that Rosalind Franklin’s work is all through that, too — like her legacy was unspooling before me, becoming even more important as the days went on. That work was really foundational to where we are today and in terms of vaccines and getting a handle on Covid.
“It has been said in the scientific community that had she gotten proper credit for her DNA work, and had she been able to finish the RNA and virus work that she started, she would have one not one but two Nobel Prizes.”
The book, like all of Benedict’s books, is a work of fiction. It’s told from a first-person perspective, so she had to get into Franklin’s head and she had to have some understanding of the science, which wasn’t easy.
“It’s my version of the historic woman,” explains Benedict. “I use the facts of her life as infrastructure and inspiration for the story that I tell.
“I tried to write these books in the third person, but I couldn’t feel as connected with the character; writing it in the first (person) brought her emotions closer to the surface for me, and gave me a better shot at seeing the world through her eyes.”
It’s an approach that’s not without its flaws, but allows for the freedom Benedict feels she needs to fully tell women’s stories.
The reality is — until very recently — women’s stories and documents, research and letters weren’t considered worthy of keeping so it’s hard to find what they actually said, Benedict explains. “I feel like in some ways, even though it’s a fictional story, it’s a more fleshed out story than if you had to stick strictly with the facts.”
Benedict’s other books include “The Only Woman in the Room,” about the glamorous movie star Hedy Lamarr, who fled Nazi-controlled Europe with something precious — her own brilliant scientific mind. She had an idea for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, a technology that would one day provide the basis for WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth communication systems.
Another book, “Lady Clementine,” is about Winston Churchill’s brilliant wife. “The Other Einstein” is about Mileva Marić, a brilliant scientist who fell in love with and married Albert Einstein, yet became lost in his world-spanning shadow.
Benedict isn’t sure how many books she’s sold, but says it’s in the “hundreds of thousands.” Her last book, “The Personal Librarian” — co-written with Victoria Christopher Murray — is about tycoon J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, who became one of the most powerful women in New York City, despite harboring a dangerous secret.
“Al Roker and Deborah Roberts, his wife, who’s a senior correspondent for ABC, interviewed us for ‘Good Morning America,’ says Benedict. “They purchased the rights and they want (to make) a limited series.”
Her one book with a purely fictional character, “Carnegie’s Maid,” is also the only novel set in Pittsburgh. Inspired by Benedict’s own family, it’s about a poor Irish immigrant who works in the house of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who became the richest man in the world.