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The Man in the Monkeynut Coat and the men in the yellow jerseys

By Kersten Hall

It is a safe bet that the name of Pierre Rolland rings very few bells among the British public. In 2012, Rolland, riding for Team Europcar finished in eighth place in the overall final classifications of the Tour de France whilst Sir Bradley Wiggins has since become a household name following his fantastic achievement of being the first British person ever to win the most famous cycle race in the world.

In the world of sport, we remember a winner. But the history of science is often also described in similar terms – as a tale of winners and losers racing to the finish line. Nowhere is this more true than in the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA. When James Watson’s book, The Double Helix was published in 1968, it depicted science as a frantic and often ruthless race in which the winner clearly took all. In Watson’s account, it was he and his Cambridge colleague Francis Crick who were first to cross the finish line, with their competitors Rosalind Franklin at Kings College, London and Linus Pauling at Caltech, Pasadena trailing in behind.

There is no denying the importance of Watson and Crick’s achievement: their double-helical model of DNA not only answered fundamental questions in biology such as how organisms pass on hereditary traits from one generation to the next but also heralded the advent of genetic engineering and the production of vital new medicines such as recombinant insulin. But it is worth asking whether this portrayal of science as a breathless race to the finish line with only winners and losers, is necessarily an accurate one. And perhaps more importantly, does it actually obscure the way that science really works?

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

To illustrate this point, it is worth remembering that Watson and Crick obtained a vital clue to solving the double-helix thanks to a photograph taken by the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin. Labelled in her lab notes as ‘Photo 51’, it showed a pattern of black spots arranged in the shape of a cross, formed when X-rays were diffracted by fibres of DNA. The effect of this image on Watson was dramatic. The sight of the black cross, he later said, made his jaw drop and pulse race for he knew that this pattern could only arise from a molecule that was helical in shape.

In recognition of its importance in the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, a plaque on the wall outside King’s College, London where Franklin worked now hails ‘Photo 51‘ as being ‘one of the world’s most important photographs’. Yet curiously, neither Watson nor Franklin had been the first to observe this striking cross pattern. For almost a year earlier, the physicist William Astbury working in his lab at Leeds had obtained an almost identical X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA.

Yet despite obtaining this clue that would prove to be so vital to Watson and Crick, Astbury never solved the double-helical structure himself and whilst the Cambridge duo went to win the Nobel Prize for their work, Astbury remains largely forgotten.

But to dismiss him as a mere ‘also-ran’ in the race for the double-helix would be both harsh and hasty: the questions that Astbury was asking and the aims of his research were subtly but significantly different to those of Watson and Crick. The Cambridge duo were solely focussed on DNA, whereas Astbury felt that by studying a wide range of biological fibres from wool to bacterial flagella, he might uncover some deep common theme based on molecular shape that could unify the whole of biology. It was this emphasis on the molecular shape of fibres and how these shapes could change that formed his core definition of the new science of ‘molecular biology’ which he helped to found and popularise, and one that has had a profound impact on modern biology and medicine.

On 5th July this year, Leeds will host ‘Le Grand Depart’ – the start of the 2014 Tour de France. As the contestants begin to climb the hills of Yorkshire each will no doubt harbour dreams of wearing the coveted yellow jersey and all will have their sights firmly fixed on crossing the same ultimate finishing line. At first sight scientific discovery may also appear to be a race towards a single finish line, but in truth it is a much more muddled affair rather like a badly organised school sports day in which several races all taking place in different directions and over different distances became jumbled together. For this reason it makes little sense to think of Astbury as having ‘lost’ the race for DNA to Watson and Crick. That Leeds was chosen to host the start of the 2014 Tour de France, is an honour for which the city can take pride, but in the life and work of William Astbury it also has a scientific heritage of which it can be equally proud.

Kersten Hall is graduated from St. Anne’s College, Oxford with a degree in biochemistry, before embarking on a PhD at the University of Leeds using molecular biology to study how viruses evade the human immune system. He then worked as a Research Fellow in the School of Medicine at Leeds during which time he developed a keen interest in the historical and philosophical roots of molecular biology. He is now Visiting Fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, where his research focuses on the origins of molecular biology and in particular the role of the pioneering physicist William T. Astbury and the work of Sir William and Lawrence Bragg. He is the author of The Man in the Monkeynut Coat.

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Image credit: William Astbury, Reproduced with the permission of Leeds University Library

Recent Comments

  1. […] to James Watson’s famous book, The Double Helix (read  Kersten Hall’s blog post about William Asbury, James Watson and the forgotten road to the Double Helix), in which WLB was compared unflatteringly to Colonel Blimp. Watson has since claimed that it was […]

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