Special thanks to Kersten Hall for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix
Kersten Hall graduated from St. Anne’s College, Oxford, with BA Honours in Biochemistry before completing a PhD at the University of Leeds on the regulation of human genes by viruses. He then worked as a research fellow in molecular biology in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. During this time he cultivated a growing interest in the history of science and is now a Visiting Fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds where his research focuses on the history of genetics and molecular biology. – From Oxford University Press
#1 – What was the impetus for The Man in the Monkeynut Coat?
Having worked for several years as a research fellow in molecular biology at the University of Leeds, UK, I had become particularly interested in the origins of this subject and was writing a dissertation on Astbury as part of an MA in History and Philosophy of Science. This work was published as an academic paper following which I was invited to give a couple of public lectures about Astbury, at which point I began to wonder whether there might be some mileage in telling his story as a popular science book. But this work really sprang to life when, through a rather bizarre twist of events that had nothing to do with writing the book, I met a member of Astbury’s family quite by accident. I was looking after my eldest son before he started school and at that time I used to take him to a weekly children’s storytelling event at one of our local libraries. It was whilst chatting with a member of staff at one of these events that I noticed on his staff ID badge that he shared the same surname as Astbury and when I mentioned that I had written an academic paper about a physicist of the same name his face lit up and he told me that he was his grandson! I think that it was following this chance meeting that the work really took on a whole new meaning and significance for me, as it now brought a very human face to the story. And I would like to thank the members of Astbury’s family for all their subsequent support and interest.
#2 – Astbury founded molecular biology and his work was crucial in discovering the structure of DNA. Why have we never heard of him?
In 2010, Leeds Civic Trust unveiled a commemorative plaque on the house where Astbury used to live as a tribute to his role in the emergence of molecular biology. Standing directly over the road from this plaque is the Headingley sports stadium that is internationally renowned as a venue for Test Cricket and I think that this can offer a useful sporting analogy which might help to explain why we have never heard of him. For, back in the summer of 1981, it was here that cricketing history was made. Just as the England team seemed to be facing inevitable defeat at the their hands of their old rivals, Australia, Ian Botham stepped up to the crease and not only won the game for England but turned around their fortunes in the space of a single afternoon such that they went on to win the entire Test series. I know very little about cricket but even I, with my meagre knowledge of the game, know about Botham and his legendary ‘149-not out’ performance of 1981. Yet I would be hard pushed to tell you the names of any of his team mates. My point is that when we write the history of sport, we remember the winners: we remember the person who scores the runs; who crosses the finish line first; who scores that crucial extra-time goal.
And the history of science is often written in the same way – as a frenzied race to the finish line. Nowhere is this more true than in the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. We remember James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins who, with the vital X-ray data obtained by Rosalind Franklin, were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their proposed double-helical structure of DNA, yet figures like Astbury who actually pioneered the methods used to investigate the structure of DNA and so laid the foundations for this later work are all too easily forgotten.
#3 – Quite often in science we know the mythologized stories of Einstein, Newton and Galileo. What does the life of Astbury tell us about science?
Following on from what I have said in the answer to the previous question, I think that this tendency to write the history of science as a race can be misleading and actually obscure how science really develops. The route to the present seems all too clear-cut and obvious when we have the benefit of hindsight. With this view it is all too 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 time and time again in the history of science we find that the scientific figures of the past were seeking to answer very different questions to the ones that we, in the present, have supposed they were asking. This is the real task for a historian of science: to try to understand the scientist and the work that they were doing in the context of their own time – and not to judge them by present day knowledge and standards. What emerges when you take this approach is actually a much more honest, enriched and, ultimately, interesting view of science.
In the case of Astbury this approach has been very revealing, for it became apparent that although he certainly was interested in DNA, it was just one aspect of a much bigger research programme that encompassed studying the structure of the other major type of giant molecule in the cell, the proteins. Unifying all this work was the single idea that came to be at the heart of Astbury’s work and which, for him was the core definition of molecular biology, namely that living systems could best be understood in terms of the shape of these giant chain molecules and, moreover, that we could perhaps artificially manipulate the shape of these molecules for our own ends. I think that it is perhaps this idea which is his greatest legacy and so to think of him solely as the man who made the very first studies of DNA but never managed to solve it himself somewhat overlooks this far more important contribution.
#4 – Astbury passed away in 1961. How did you do your research for the book? How were you able to breathe life into Astbury on the written page?
The vast collection of Astbury’s letters and correspondence that is held in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds (and I must also thank the diligent and hardworking staff!) was an invaluable resource but I think that it was through making contact with both Astbury’s family together with the handful of people still alive who worked with him and were kindly willing to share their anecdotes and recollections that I was really able to breath life into this story and I am very grateful for all their help.
#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?
When trying to convey the power and significance of molecular biology, the one example that I usually reach for is the production of human insulin by recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s as this was of huge benefit to millions of patients with both type 1 and type 2 Diabetes. But over the course of my work on Astbury it has become evident to me that insulin is far more interesting than being merely a case study in the power of molecular biology. Astbury’s work on DNA emerged from his initial studies on the structure of wool fibres for the local textile industries of West Yorkshire but it turns out that the Leeds textile trade may also have an intriguing and important connection to the story of insulin thanks again to a few unsung scientific heroes whose stories I would be very interested to tell.
Also, for several years now I have had an idea for a children’s adventure story and while this may seem like quite a dramatic change of direction from history of science, I should say that molecular biology is central to the plot and, if anyone reads the final chapter of The Man in the Monkeynut Coat closely enough they may well spot a connection between some of the themes…
[Image Credit: Supplied by Author]