The Man in the Monkeynut Coat by Kersten Hall

Reproduced with the permission of Leeds University Library.

William Astbury. Reproduced with the permission of Leeds University Library.

In this week’s article, Kersten Hall tells us about Leeds-based physicist William Astbury, the unsung hero of DNA whom he writes about in his book The Man in the Monkeynut Coat.

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 these giants are easily forgotten and one such neglected figure is the Leeds-based physicist William Astbury. When I first returned to Leeds to undertake a PhD in molecular biology, I had little idea that this had been the home of a scientist who had pioneered the very subject in which I was working and his name meant little to me other than as a computer cluster on campus.

Yet in his day, Astbury achieved such international renown that the Nobel Laureate Max Perutz once hailed Astbury’s laboratory in Leeds as ‘the X-ray Vatican’. Although a physicist by training, he 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? Perhaps the fact that Headingley where Astbury lived is more famous for sport than science can offer an answer, for standing directly across the road from Astbury’s former home is the famous cricket ground where in 1981, Ian Botham led the England team from what seemed to be inevitable defeat to a memorable Ashes victory over Australia. That someone like myself with only a minimal knowledge of cricket can recall Botham’s legendary performance, whilst at the same time struggling to name a single other player on the team, shows the extent to which the history of sport is largely one in which it is the winners who are remembered– and there is often a tendency to write the history of science in similar terms.

 

X-ray diffraction image of Mozart’s hair © Estate of Dr Elwyn Beighton, reproduced with kind permission also of William Astbury (grandson)

X-ray diffraction image of Mozart’s hair © Estate of Dr Elwyn Beighton, reproduced with kind permission also of William Astbury (grandson)

This sense of having been an ‘unsung hero of DNA’ certainly drew me to him, but there were several other reasons why he made such a fascinating subject. He was a passionate evangelist and popularised the new science of ‘molecular biology’ to both lay and scientific audiences with a range of examples, some of which were quite everyday such as the boiling of eggs or the perming of hair, and others which were rather more unusual – of which two are particularly memorable.

The first was an X-ray image taken in his lab of hair fibres that had originally come from the head of Mozart and, as a great lover of classical music, Astbury was so moved by this image that on one occasion it is said to have brought tears to his eyes.

The second example was his rather unusual overcoat that was woven from proteins extracted from monkeynuts, the molecular structure of which had been deliberately reshaped into insoluble fibres.  While this did not ultimately provide a cheap and abundant alternative to wool for use by the textile industry as had been hoped, 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.cover

 

Not that Astbury himself was entirely comfortable with this idea, for despite having spent his career evangelising for molecular biology, he was deeply concerned that such a purely reductionist view might leave humanity with a severely diminished sense of itself. Though passionate about science, he also felt that we needed art, music, poetry and literature. It was  inner tensions such as these which made Astbury a particularly fascinating subject and I was lucky enough to able to explore it in much more depth thanks to a chance encounter at a children’s event in a local library to which I had taken my eldest son where it emerged in casual conversation with a member of staff that he was actually Astbury’s grandson!

 


So, what next? Well it seems that Astbury may well not be the only scientific pioneer to emerge from the woollen industries of West Yorkshire whose work went on to play an important role in the story of DNA, as well as another important scientific development – our understanding of the hormone insulin. I also have an idea for a children’s adventure story and, while this may seem like a sharp change of direction from DNA, one of the main characters is a molecular biologist and, should anyone read the final chapter of The Man in the Monkeynut Coat closely enough, they may well spot a vague connection.


k_hall_colourKersten Hall is Visiting Fellow at the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds.

He is the author of  The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix (Oxford University Press, 2014). His book was featured on  Books of  the year 2014 list compiled by The Guardian.

Kesten will be giving a talk entitled ‘From Dark Satanic Mills to DNA – the scientific heritage of Leeds’ at Headingley Library on Thursday 14 May 7pm.

You can find out more about William Astbury here

 

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Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend. Fiona is its Coordinator and Marketing Director of the Northern Short Story Festival.

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