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Former Biochemistry student publishes book on a forgotten pioneer in crystallography

A new book by Kersten Hall, a former Biochemistry student now at the University of Leeds, revives a little known figure in the world of X-ray crystallography – physicist William T. Astbury.

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In 'The Man in the Monkeynut Coat', Hall explores how Astbury's contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA and the establishment of the field of molecular biology have been overlooked.

Astbury was part of the group of X-ray crystallographers, including J.D Bernal, who studied under William Henry Bragg at the Royal Institution in the 1920s. He moved to the University of Leeds where he applied X-ray analysis to study the structure of wool for the local textile industry.

Although he was primarily interested in analysing protein structure, he published the first X-ray photographs of DNA fibres. His studies culminated in a photo almost identical to Rosalind Franklin's 'Photo 51' taken a year later that was crucial to the model developed by Watson and Crick.

While Hall speculates how Astbury's photos might have changed the course of events leading to the discover of the structure of DNA, James Watson's 1968 book The Double Helix sadly gives little thought to them. It credits Astbury only with the 'one half-good photograph' of DNA taken by one of his students in 1938.

Professor Elspeth Garman in the Department, who attended the book launch at St Anne's College, said: 'Kersten Hall has brought into the limelight a normally unsung key player in the development of modern molecular and structural biology by writing this very engaging biography of William Astbury.'

'At his talk at St Anne's, Hall eloquently described the 'Whig' view of science - an interpretation of history referring to a particular way of writing it which is perhaps best described by the old cliché of history as being written by the winners. It frames the events and protagonists of the past only in terms dictated by the interests and perspectives of the present day.'

'I found this `Whig' analysis fascinating. In our scientific papers we usually set out a narrative that appears linear - we had a hypothesis, we did the described experiments, we came to some conclusions regarding the hypothesis - whereas the real process is nothing like this: it has many branches and dead ends and is an iterative procedure.'

The book is reviewed by Georgina Ferry in Nature.

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