Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Object 11: Astbury Camera

What: Public Lecture, on History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects 

When: Tuesday 24th January, 6:30 – 7:30pm *later time*

Where: Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre, Michael Sadler Building

Astbury cameraJoin Dr Kersten Hall and Helen Piel as they explores the life and work of the Leeds-based physicist William T. Astbury whose role in one of the biggest scientific discoveries in history has gone largely untold. From early X-ray studies made in the 1930s on the structure of wool for the local textile industry, Astbury became a world authority on using  X-ray crystallography to study biological fibres and not only pioneered the emerging new science of ‘molecular biology’ but also made the very first studies of the structure of DNA, the molecule of heredity – so laying the foundations for later work by James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet whilst Watson and  Crick went on to win the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA, Astbury has largely been forgotten, Kersten and Helen will tell his story.

Everyone is welcome, this lecture series assumes no prior knowledge. Tea and Coffee will be served from 6.15pm outside the lecture theatre.


Lecture Video:


Below is a blog post written by PhD student Alex Aylward

HPS in 20 Objects, Lecture 11: Astbury Camera; from dark satanic mills to DNA

Many of us enjoy rooting for the underdog. The sporting world is probably the arena in which this sentiment is most commonly manifested. But what about the history of science? In the 11th lecture in this series, Dr Kersten Hall and Helen Piel treated us to an underdog’s tale: a tale of Leeds’ important place in the history of molecular biology;  of prescience and priority; of the serendipity of scientific discovery; a tale, as is becoming customary in this series (see lecture 9 on the ‘Anthrax finger’), of wool.

Few scientific achievements are as salient in the public consciousness as the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, the genetic material. Most of us know the story of the co-discoverers, James Watson and Francis Crick, announcing to their fellow patrons at the Eagle pub in Cambridge that they had “discovered the secret of life.” And nowadays, as Kersten emphasised, we can barely glance at the news without being greeted by stories of genes-for this-or-that trait, or disease.

Mythbusting is a not-uncommon activity for the historian of science. Textbooks and the media often package up the history of a given scientific episode in neat and convenient ways, jettisoning many of the extra details and actors that make them so fascinating. Nowadays, we rightly remember the essential role that Rosalind Franklin played in the unravelling of the helix. But there are still other strands to the story, missing from the yarn that popular accounts and student biological texts habitually spin. Kersten and Helen ably weaved these additional strands, yielding a more nuanced and inclusive history of the dawn of molecular biology.

The textile-inspired metaphors are not accidental. The story centres on wool. When the young William Astbury left London for Leeds in 1928, to take up a Lectureship in Textile Physics, he worried he was “going into the wilderness.” In London he had worked with William Bragg, former Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, who along with his son Lawrence, won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the development of X-ray crystallography (the principles of which Helen Piel adeptly informed us, with the help of some rather fetching ‘x-ray specs’). Bragg set Astbury the challenge of investigating whether, and how much, X-ray crystallography could tell us about the nature of molecules that make up living things. Wool, being central to Yorkshire’s economy, was an obvious and potentially profitable, place to start. Through this work, crucial steps were made in understanding the molecular structure of proteins, and it represents a milestone in the explication of everyday properties of biological materials (the springiness and stretchiness of wool) with reference to the structure of its constituent molecules.


A mathematician colleague of Astbury celebrate the latter’s investigation of wool with a poem

An image that features in Astbury’s student Florence Bell’s PhD thesis in 1938 showing x-ray diffraction patters caused by DNA In the 1940s, the pioneering work of Oswald Avery (another crucial figure in the origins of molecular biology whose achievements have been perhaps unduly dwarfed in popular histories by those of Watson and Crick) alerted the scientific community to the role of DNA (previously presumed to be a merely structural cell component) as the genetic material. Astbury and his colleagues were galvanised, and against the obstacles of a hesitant University Senate, sub-par infrastructure, and snubs by funding bodies, the X-ray camera was utilised for probing the structure of DNA. Indeed, in 1951, an image strikingly similar to Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ (which has been described as one of the most important photographs in history, and was a crucial clue in Watson’s and Crick’s proposing the double-helical structure of DNA) was produced. Lacking the conceptual framework for interpreting this image in the way his Cambridge counterparts famously did, Astbury shelved the photo, devoting instead his attention to the manipulation and utilisation of biological fibres towards human ends (resulting in the ICI fashioning him an overcoat made from the fibres extracted from monkey-nuts!). Kersten speculated that, for Astbury, who was guided by an interest in structure, rather than function, a helix (if he had managed to hit upon such a model), might even have been disappointingly monotonous.

The lecture was anything but. The narrative was littered with quips, voice-clips, and anecdotes about locks of Mozart’s hair, as well as profound reflections on what light the story of Astbury’s involvement in the origins of molecular biology could shed on some of the big questions about science and the study of life. Outside of the UK, Kersten mused, mention of Leeds quite often evokes (if it is known at all) mention of The Who’s Live at Leeds, recorded at the University student’s union in February 1970. Kersten and Helen assured us not only that William Astbury should take pride of place in any who’s who of Leeds, but that Leeds itself deserves recognition in any discerning history of molecular biology.


Kersten treated us to a real who’s who of Leeds History

The 12th lecture in the series takes place on the 28th February at 6:30pm, in the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre. Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery will introduce us to an early stethoscope, throught to have been made by the device’s inventor René Laennec.

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