Professor William Astbury

Born 25th February, 1998 ( Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom) - Died 4th June, 1961

Although a physicist by training, William Astbury's real passion was biology. He was one of the first scientists to popularise and pioneer the new science of 'molecular biology' that aimed to understand the complexity of living systems by studying the three-dimensional structure of the molecules from which they were made. Starting from early work on wool fibres for the textile industries of West Yorkshire, Astbury pioneered the use of X-rays to solve the shape of giant biological molecules such as proteins and, with his research assistant Florence Bell, made the very first attempt to solve the structure of DNA, the genetic molecule.

Figure 1: Physicist William Astbury (Photo credit: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds)

Family

William Astbury was born on 25 February 1898 in the market town of Longton, in the district of Stoke-on-Trent, a region famous for its ceramics industry, and which according to another resident, the novelist Arnold Bennett, was 'an architecture of ovens and chimneys; for this its atmosphere is as black as mud; for this it burns and smokes all night' (1). In an eulogy delivered at Astbury's funeral, his colleague Kenneth Bailey speculated that the industrial grime of his surroundings may well have driven Astbury's ambition to escape his hometown (2). He was one of seven children born to William Edwin, who worked as a furniture maker and potter's turner, and Clara Dean, and although it was from his father that he inherited his lifelong love of music, it was his mother who recognised and nurtured his academic talent from an early age.

Education

Astbury went to Cambridge University in 1917, but after only two terms was called up for military service in the First World War. Having had his appendix removed a few years earlier he was deemed unfit for combat and was posted to Cork in Ireland, where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as a lance-corporal in charge of a medical X-ray unit.

Although X-rays were to be the foundation on which Astbury built his later scientific success, his first encounter with them did not go well. In later life he enjoyed telling how he had earned the dubious military honour of facing a court-martial on two separate occasions for mishaps involving X-rays, one of which included making improvised repairs to a primitive X-ray machine with some wire and a tin can that did not impress his senior officers.

After the War, Astbury returned to Cambridge and, after completing his studies, he moved to London to work with the physicist Sir William Bragg. In 1913, whilst Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, Bragg and his son Lawrence had discovered a way of using the scattering of X-rays to determine the arrangement of atoms and molecules in crystals. Known as X-ray crystallography, this method transformed our understanding of matter and earned the Braggs the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Using their method, the Braggs had been able to determine the arrangement of atoms in simple inorganic substances such as diamond and rock salt, but now Williams Bragg had set his sights higher. He wanted to know whether X-ray crystallography could reveal the structure of materials found in living systems such as the fibres that make up hair, nail and wool. While this was an interesting scientific question, it was also of great practical – and economic - importance. Wool was a major raw material for the textile industry and there was a strong feeling at the time that, if Britain was not to be overtaken by economic rivals such as Germany, there needed to be more application of basic science to industry.

Bragg gave Astbury the task of using X-ray crystallography to study the molecular structure of wool fibres and in 1928 encouraged him to leave London and head north to Leeds to take up the newly created post of Lecturer in Textile Physics. As one of the main centres of the textile industry, Leeds seemed to be the ideal place in which to carry out this research into wool fibres, but Astbury did not share his mentor's enthusiasm for the move north. In a letter to his friend and fellow pioneer of X-ray crystallographer, John Desmond Bernal, he wrote that the thought of leaving London left him feeling as if he was going ‘into the wilderness’ (3).

Career

Astbury went to Cambridge University in 1917, but after only two terms was called up for military service in the First World War. Having had his appendix removed a few years earlier he was deemed unfit for combat and was posted to Cork in Ireland, where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as a lance-corporal in charge of a medical X-ray unit.

Although X-rays were to be the foundation on which Astbury built his later scientific success, his first encounter with them did not go well. In later life he enjoyed telling how he had earned the dubious military honour of facing a court-martial on two separate occasions for mishaps involving X-rays, one of which included making improvised repairs to a primitive X-ray machine with some wire and a tin can that did not impress his senior officers.

After the War, Astbury returned to Cambridge and, after completing his studies, he moved to London to work with the physicist Sir William Bragg. In 1913, whilst Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, Bragg and his son Lawrence discovered a way of using the scattering of X-rays to determine the arrangement of atoms and molecules in crystals. Known as X-ray crystallography, this method transformed our understanding of matter and earned the Braggs the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Using their method, the Braggs had been able to determine the arrangement of atoms in simple inorganic substances such as diamond and rock salt, but now Williams Bragg had set his sights higher. He wanted to know whether X-ray crystallography could reveal the structure of materials found in living systems such as the fibres that make up hair, nail and wool. While this was an interesting scientific question, it was also of great practical – and economic - importance. Wool was a major raw material for the textile industry and there was a strong feeling at the time that, if Britain was not to be overtaken by economic rivals such as Germany, there needed to be more application of basic science to industry.

Bragg gave Astbury the task of using X-ray crystallography to study the molecular structure of wool fibres and in 1928 encouraged him to leave London and head north to Leeds to take up the newly created post of Lecturer in Textile Physics. As one of the main centres of the textile industry, Leeds seemed to be the ideal place in which to carry out this research into wool fibres, but Astbury did not share his mentor's enthusiasm for the move north. In a letter to his friend and fellow pioneer of X-ray crystallographer, John Desmond Bernal, he wrote that the thought of leaving London left him feeling as if he was going ‘into the wilderness’ (3).

Achievements

Astbury's gloom about moving to Leeds however proved severely misplaced. For while the study of wool fibres might not have seemed to be the most exciting of subjects for a young scientist just starting out in their career, it enabled Astbury to shed light on a fundamental question about the nature of living systems that had perplexed scientists for a long time. This centred on the precise chemical nature of proteins, which while known for a long time to carry out a range of essential functions in living organisms, such as acting as enzymes to catalyse metabolic reactions, remained a mystery. Measurements of the molecular weight of proteins had shown them to be huge molecular structures. Yet they were also known to be composed of small chemicals called amino acids. How these small compounds could form giant molecular structures was unclear. Astbury's X-ray studies of wool, along with similar work done on silk fibres in Germany, was designed to help provide an answer.

Using a home-made X-ray camera (although the word 'camera' seems a little sophisticated – in reality it was basically a lead box) Astbury showed that the amino acids in keratin, the main protein component of wool fibres, were linked together to form long chains called polypeptides which he likened to a 'molecular centipede'. Furthermore, these chains could take on an expanded or contracted form. This explained the elasticity of wool that made it so attractive as a raw material for the textile industry or, as the scientist Lindo Patterson put it more poetically:

Amino acids in chains,

are the cause or so the X-ray explains,

of the stretching of wool,

and its strength when you pull,

and show why it shrinks when it rains (4).

The idea that the macroscopic properties of living systems could best be explained in terms of molecular structures and how they change shape formed the core of a whole new science which Astbury popularised as 'molecular biology' and defined as being: 'concerned particularly with the forms of biological molecules...Molecular biology is predominantly three-dimensional and structural.'(5)

Through his work on the structure of protein molecules in wool, Astbury soon became such an international authority on the application of X-ray crystallography to biological fibres that the Nobel laureate Max Perutz is said to have once hailed his laboratory at Leeds as nothing less than 'the X-ray Vatican' (6). Nor did Astbury confine his work to wool but rather he cast his net wide and studied a wide range of different biological fibres including the myosin proteins in muscle, keratin in human hair, and flagella - whip-like structures that bacteria use to propel themselves through a liquid medium.

Of all the protein fibres which Astbury studied, perhaps the most unusual was a strand of hair from the head of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was one of his favourite composers (12,13). (Figure 2) Alongside molecular biology, classical music was Astbury's other great passion and it also provided him with a striking metaphor when he described fibrous molecules as being 'Nature's chosen instrument in the symphony of creation' (14).

 Mozart hair

Figure 2. Enlarged X-ray diffraction image of keratin proteins in a lock of Mozart's hair. Credit: WT Astbury, 'The Fundamentals of Fibre Research: A Physicist's Story,' Journal of the Textile Industry, 51, (1960): 515–25: p.524. Reproduced with permission from the Special Collections, Brotherton Library, Leeds University.

Although Astbury might seem to have been rather eclectic in his choice of materials to subject to x-ray crystallography, in each case he believed that, their respective biological properties could be explained by changes in the shape of protein fibres. He communicated his work with a passion to both scientific and lay audiences, including explaining to hairdressers how hair could be 'permed' thanks to deliberately altering the shape of keratin fibres (7,8,9). Based on his observations of structural similarities in the keratin protein found in feathers and scales, Astbury even suggested that evidence for an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles (an idea first credited to the Victorian scientist T.H. Huxley) could be found at the molecular level (10,11).

But proteins were not the only biological fibre that attracted Astbury's interest. In 1938, his research assistant Florence Bell took the very first X-ray images of DNA, the genetic material from which she and Astbury proposed an early structure of the molecule. At this time, most scientists believed proteins to carry genetic material and that DNA was little more than a structural scaffold but Astbury and Bell were among the few who thought that DNA might be doing something far more important. Astbury was one of the very first scientists to recognise the importance of an experiment done in 1944 by US microbiologist Oswald Avery that one textbook has since called 'Avery's Bombshell' (15) and which the Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg has compared with the D-Day landings of that same year for its impact on history (16). Avery and his team at the Rockefeller Hospital in New York had shown that DNA could pass on the ability to cause disease in bacteria. This was the first strong evidence that DNA might be the carrier of genetic information and Astbury hailed it as 'one of the most remarkable discoveries of our time' (17).

In January 1945, Astbury wrote to Avery telling him that he was 'thrilled' at his discovery and asked to be sent a sample of DNA that he could subject to X-ray analysis. Even though Avery never replied, Astbury was now inspired with a dream that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he would establish a new department at Leeds that would become a national centre for blazing the trail in molecular biology. Sadly not everyone shared his vision. The Medical Research Council rejected his application for funding and, although the University of Leeds did give him premises for his new department, it was a far cry from what he had expected. His new research unit was housed in a Victorian terraced house that was prone to flooding, suffered from an unreliable electricity supply and had uneven floors which made delicate scientific instruments wobble.

It was in these adverse working conditions that two highly significant developments took place. One of these was made by Laszlo Lorand, a young medical student who had arrived in Leeds in January 1949 with only a suitcase at his side having fled the Communist authorities in his native Hungary. In the course of research for his PhD, Lorand discovered that the blood protein thrombin acts as an enzyme to convert the soluble protein fibrinogen into fibrin, the main component of blood clots. Lorand's discovery was a milestone in understanding the molecular mechanism of blood clot formation and has since been crucial in the development of anti-clotting drugs.

The other was a new X-ray photograph of DNA that was taken in 1951 by Astbury's research assistant, Elwyn Beighton, that showed the striking pattern of a clear black cross made by the diffracted X-rays (Figure 3a). A year later, an almost identical image (Figure 3b) was taken by the crystallographers Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling working at King's College, London, and when James Watson was shown their photograph for the first time, his response was dramatic: 'The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race' (18) Watson's excitement arose because he knew that only a molecule that was coiled into the shape of a helix would scatter X-rays to give the distinctive cross-shaped pattern. Known as 'Photo 51', this photograph gave Watson and Crick one of several clues that were vital to solving the structure of DNA, and has since become famous as the title of a smash hit West End play in which Nicole Kidman won an award for her portrayal of Franklin.

X-ray image of DNA

Figure 3a - X-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by Astbury's research assistant Elwyn Beighton in May and June 1951. Reproduced with permission from the Special Collections, Brotherton Library, Leeds University.

Figure 3b 'Photo 51' – the now famous X-ray diffraction image taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling at King's College, London in 1952. Reproduced with kind permission of King's College London Archives', Document ref: KDBP1/1/867. Both images show the striking pattern of black spots arranged in the form of a cross that James Watson later recognised as being characteristic of a molecule that was coiled into a helical shape.

Astbury's response to Beighton's photograph stands in sharp contrast to that of Watson. Far from making his jaw drop and his pulse race, Astbury filed Beighton's photograph away: it was never published in a paper or even presented at a meeting. This may well seem like an oversight of stunning proportions – but we should be wary of making judgements with the benefit of hindsight. For Astbury, molecular biology was always about three-dimensional structure – and DNA proved to be no exception. From a letter to the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, (19) it seems Astbury believed that the secret of how DNA carried genetic information was through variation in its three-dimensional structure. Far from making his jaw drop and his pulse race therefore, the revelation from Beighton's photograph that DNA was a monotonous, repeating helix would have been a crushing disappointment to him. Astbury's ideas about DNA and his apparently baffling response to Beighton's photograph are explored further in the book The Man in the Monkeynut Coat as is the tantalising possibility that, had Astbury shown this photograph to his friend and colleague the US chemist Linus Pauling during a visit to Leeds in 1952, the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA might have unfolded very differently.

But while it might be tempting to dismiss Astbury as a mere footnote in the story of DNA, it is worth considering that his greatest scientific contribution may have been a rather unusual overcoat. Working with collaborators at Imperial College, London, Astbury had shown that it was possible, by chemical treatment, to refold the polypeptide chains of soluble seed proteins into insoluble fibres. The hope was that this process might be used to produce a cheap and abundant substitute for wool as a raw material for the textile industry and the company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) were so interested in this idea that they built a pilot plant in Ardeer, Scotland, to produce a textile fibre from the main protein component of monkeynuts. The fibre was marketed under the name 'Ardil' and to prove its worth as a rival to wool, ICI produced an entire overcoat made from this material which they gave as a gift to Astbury. The overcoat caused much amusement in the national press (Figure 4).

Newspaper clipping

Figure 4. Newspaper clipping reporting on Astbury's 'monkeynut coat'. Credit: Astbury Papers MS419 Press clippings book A.1, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

While 'Ardil' did not prove to be the salvation of the British textile industry, it was a powerful example of Astbury's conviction that not only could we observe biological structures at the molecular level, but that we might go further, and manipulate them for our own ends. In a series of BBC radio broadcasts called 'Science Lifts the Veil', given in 1942, he predicted that this idea would one day give rise to entire industries. Just under 40 years later, in 1980, Astbury's vision became a reality when the US biotech company Genentech made a spectacular debut on Wall Street. Sadly having died in 1961 from an ongoing cardiovascular condition, Astbury did not live long enough to see his prediction come true. In an obituary, his friend and colleague, the crystallographer John Desmond Bernal wrote 'His monument will be found in the whole of molecular biology, a subject which he named and effectively founded' (20). To this might also be added that he was a prophet of biotechnology.

 Astbury cartoon

Figure 5. Cartoon of Astbury's overcoat from Yorkshire Evening Post. Credit: Astbury Papers MS419 Press clippings book A.1, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

Blue plaque

Author

Kersten Hall (@monkeynut_coat) graduated from St. Anne's College, Oxford with a degree in Biochemistry before embarking on doctoral research on how viruses control human gene expression at the University of Leeds. He worked for several years as a research fellow in molecular biology in the School of Medicine before finally putting down his pipette, hanging up his white coat and swapping the laboratory for the library to study the history of science. He is now an honorary fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds where his research focusses on the history of molecular biology. His book The Man in the Monkeynut Coat (Oxford University Press, 2014) tells the story of William Astbury and was shortlisted for the 2015 British Society for the History of Science Dingle Prize as well as being featured on a list of selected titles for 2014 by Professor Stephen Curry in The Guardian). He is currently working on a new book about the discovery of insulin.

References

(1) A Bennett, The Old Wives' Tale (1908, Penguin Classics edition, 2007), p.39.

(2) AC Chibnall, ‘Kenneth Bailey, 1909–1963’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 10 (1964), pp. 1–13.

(3) WT Astbury to JD Bernal, 13th September 1928, in John Desmond Bernal: Scientific and Personal Papers. Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives GBR/0012/MS Add.8287 J2.

(4) WT Astbury, ‘X-Ray Adventures among the Proteins. 4th Spiers Memorial Lecture, 1937,’ Transactions of the Faraday Society, 34, (1938): 378–88: p.378.

(5) WT Astbury, ‘Adventures in Molecular Biology (The Harvey Lecture, 1950),’ Harvey Society Series 46, (1952): 3–44.

(6) Warren Weaver to WT Astbury, 27th May 1948, Astbury Papers, MS419 E153 University of Leeds Special Collections, Brotherton Library.

(7) ‘The technique of the permanent wave’, The Daily Mail, 16th April 1931, Astbury Papers, MS419 A1 press clippings book, ULSC BL.

(8) ‘The permanent wave’, Manchester Guardian, 23th March 1931, Astbury Papers MS419 A1 press, clippings book, ULSC BL.

(9) ‘The professor says—the permanent wave is a stretch,’ The Daily Express, 13th May 1936, Astbury Papers, MS419 A1 press clippings book, ULSC BL.

(10) WT Astbury, ‘X-Ray Studies of Protein Structure,’ Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 2, (1934): 15–27.

(11) WT Astbury, HJ Woods, ‘4-The Molecular Structure of Textile Fibres,’ The Journal of the Textile Institute, 33, (1932): T17–34.

(12) How Mozart’s hair came to be in the possession of the University of Leeds and a test subject for Astbury’s X-ray analysis is a story in itself. In 1829, the composer Vincent Novello and his wife Mary set out on a trip to Europe with the aim of presenting Mozart’s elderly sister with a sum of money that they had collected and also to gather material for a projected life of Mozart. Throughout their trip, Vincent and his wife kept travel diaries. These were eventually tracked down after Major Edward Croft, a British army officer, was quartered in the Villa Novello outside Genoa in 1944, where he found a book that referred to the diaries. The diaries were published as a translation in 1955 by Rosemary Hughes as A Mozart Pilgrimage and described Vincent and Mary’s visit to Mozart’s widow Constanze in Salzburg. According to the diaries, during one of these visits, Constanze presented Vincent and Mary with a lock of her husband’s hair. In 1950, the University of Leeds was presented with the travel diaries, together with other papers and the lock of hair by Novello’s Italian descendants. Although their connection with the University of Leeds is not entirely clear, it is thought that since the University of Leeds was known to be the ‘most serious, active institutional collector of 19th century rare books’ that it was the ideal home for the Novello collection (Professor A.C.T. North, University of Leeds, personal communication, 2011).

(13) WT Astbury, ‘The Fundamentals of Fibre Research: A Physicist’s Story,’ Journal of the Textile Industry, 51, (1960): 515–25: p.524.

(14) WT Astbury, ‘Textile Fibres and Molecular Biology,’ Lecture delivered at the International Textile Congress, Brussels, June 1955. Astbury Papers, MS693/45 University of Leeds Brotherton Library, Special Collections.

(15) JD Watson, NH Hopkins, JW Roberts, JA, Steitz, AM Weiner, Molecular Biology of the Gene, (Menlo Park, California: Benjamin/Cummings, 4th edn 1987): p.69.

(16) J Lederberg, ‘The Dawning of Molecular Genetics,’ Trends in Microbiology 8, (2000): 194–95.

(17) W.T. Astbury to F.B. Hanson, 19th October 1944. Astbury Papers, MS419 E.152, University of Leeds Special Collections.

(18) JD Watson, ‘The Double Helix', (Penguin, 8th edition 1986): p.132.

(19) W.T Astbury to E. Chargaff, 14th March 1951. Astbury Papers, MS419 E28, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

(20) J.D.Bernal, ‘William Thomas Astbury, 1898-1961', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 9, (1963): 1-35; p.29.

Further Reading

KT Hall, The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix (2014).

KT Hall From Dark Satanic Mills to DNA (2020).

H Judson, The Eighth Day of Creation (1996).

B Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: Dark Lady of DNA (2003).

R Olby, The Path to the Double Helix ,(1994).

J Watson, The Double Helix (2010)

G Williams, Unravelling the Double Helix (2019)

Whilst you are here... We are working hard every day to educate and encourage young people across the world to discover a love of science and to become involved by creating accessible, well-researched material that helps educate and inform students and the public about life-saving medicines and the scientists who make those medicines possible. But we can't do it on our own, we need support from readers and users of WhatIsBiotechnology.org. So if you’re able to, .

Respond to or comment on this page on our feeds on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.