The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

By Kersten T Hall

Synopsis: Sir Isaac Newton once declared that his momentous discoveries were only made thanks to having ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’. The same might also be said of the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick. Their discovery of the structure of DNA was, without doubt, one of the biggest scientific landmarks in history and, thanks largely to the success of Watson’s best-selling memoir ‘The Double Helix’, there might seem to be little new to say about this story.

But much remains to be said about the particular ‘giants’ on whose shoulders Watson and Crick stood. Of these, the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose famous X-ray diffraction photograph known as ‘Photo 51’ provided Watson and Crick with a vital clue, is now well recognised. Far less well known is the physicist William T. Astbury who, working at Leeds in the 1930s on the structure of wool for the local textile industry, pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study biological fibres. In so doing, he not only made the very first studies of the structure of DNA culminating in a photo almost identical to Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’, but also founded the new science of ‘molecular biology’.

Yet whilst Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize, Astbury has largely been forgotten. The Man in the Monkeynut Coattells the story of this neglected pioneer, showing not only how it was thanks to him that Watson and Crick were not left empty-handed, but also how his ideas transformed biology leaving a legacy which is still felt today.

Published: August 2014 | ISBN-13: 978-0198704591

William Thomas Astbury was an English physicist and molecular biologist who made pioneering X-ray diffraction studies of biological molecules. His work on keratin provided the foundation for Linus Pauling’s discovery of the alpha helix. He also studied the structure for DNA in 1937 and made the first step in the elucidation of its structure. – Wikipedia

Mini-bio: Kersten Hall graduated from St. Anne’s College, Oxford with a degree in biochemistry, before embarking on a PhD at the University of Leeds to study how Adenoviruses evade the human immune system. He then worked as a Research Fellow in the School of Medicine at Leeds using the methods of molecular biology to develop viral gene therapy vectors. During this time he developed a keen interest in the historical and philosophical roots of molecular biology which led him to join the MA programme in the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science where his MA dissertation explored how the Leeds based physicist William T. Astbury who pioneered the use of X-rays to probe the structure of biological macromolecules, popularised the term ‘molecular biology’ and in so doing made the very first structural studies of the DNA molecule. – Faculty of Arts Bio, University of Leeds

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