For British Science Week, Kersten Hall recalls a forgotten giant in the hunt for DNA.
By Kersten Hall (St Anne’s College, 1988)
Sir Isaac Newton once famously declared that his scientific discoveries were made thanks only to having ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. Yet all too often the names of such giants are easily forgotten, and one such neglected figure is the physicist William Astbury. When I arrived at St Anne’s College nearly 30 years ago to read biochemistry, his name meant nothing to me, though he had spent most of his career in my home city, Leeds, and his work had a profound impact on the subject that I would be studying for the next four years.
In his day, Astbury achieved such international renown that the Nobel laureate Max Perutz called his Leeds laboratory ‘the X-ray Vatican’. Although a physicist by training, Astbury was fascinated by biology and pioneered the use of X-rays to probe the structure of the giant chain molecules from which living organisms are composed. His early work on the molecular structure of wool fibres for the textile industries of West Yorkshire gave important new insights into the structure of proteins and also led him to make the very first X-ray studies of DNA, the molecule of heredity, from which he proposed an early model of its structure.
Why then have we never heard of him? The cricket ground opposite Astbury’s Headingley home offers a useful analogy. Here Ian Botham led England from what seemed inevitable defeat to a memorable Ashes victory over Australia in 1981 — a personal performance etched in my memory even though I struggle to name any other player on the team. In sport it is largely the winners who are remembered — and likewise in the history of science.
It is easy to dismiss figures such as Astbury as mere also-rans who took part in the race for DNA but failed to make it across the finish line. Yet to do so overlooks a scientific legacy which went far beyond DNA. This is the idea that living systems could best be understood in terms of the giant chain molecules of which they were composed — a concept he popularised as ‘molecular biology’.
A great lover of classical music, he once described such chain molecules as ‘Nature’s chosen instrument in the symphony of creation’. He was even moved to tears by an X-ray diffraction image of human hair fibres that had originally come from the head of Mozart (right).
A passionate ambassador for science, Astbury explained the idea of molecular biology to both lay and scientific audiences using everyday examples such as the boiling of an egg or the perming of hair. But his most memorable example was far from ordinary. This was his rather unusual overcoat — woven from proteins extracted from monkeynuts, the molecular structure of which had been deliberately reshaped into insoluble fibres. This did not ultimately provide the textile industry with a cheap and abundant alternative to wool as had been hoped. But it did illustrate the important idea that we could now not only understand life in terms of molecular shape but deliberately alter living systems at the molecular level.
Not that Astbury himself was entirely comfortable with this idea. Though he had spent his career evangelising for molecular biology, he was deeply concerned that such a purely reductionist view might leave humanity with a severely diminished and impoverished image of itself. This inner tension made Astbury a particularly fascinating subject.
I was lucky enough to able to explore it in much more depth thanks to a chance encounter at the local library, where a member of staff revealed in casual conversation that he was Astbury’s grandson. It led me to write a biography, The Man in the Monkeynut Coat, published by Oxford University Press and hailed in the Guardian as one of last year’s best science books.
So, what next? It seems Astbury may well not be the only scientific pioneer to emerge from the West Yorkshire woollen industries. In 1952, Archer Martin and Richard Synge were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing partition chromatography. They used it to reveal the chemical composition of the keratin proteins in wool, but it as adapted for DNA analysis it ultimately provided vital data for James Watson and Francis Crick. The work of Martin and Synge was crucial too in our understanding of insulin, the hormone which regulates blood sugar levels. I also have an idea for a children’s adventure story, with much of the action based around a molecular biology lab. Anyone reading the final chapter of ‘The Man in the Monkeynut Coat’ closely enough may spot a vague connection. . . .
Kersten Hall is visiting fellow at the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds, where he is also working on a new translation of Gregor Mendel’s seminal 1865 paper that provided the foundation stone of modern genetics. The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix is available from OUP.
Photograph of William Astbury reproduced with the permission of Leeds University Library. X-ray diffraction image of Mozart’s hair © Estate of Dr Elwyn Beighton, reproduced with kind permission also of William Astbury (grandson). Book jacket © Oxford University Press.