William Astbury - Professor X

William Astbury at his desk

So influential was the research of William Astbury that Leeds named a £17 million centre for Structural Molecular Biology named after him. But who was Astbury, and why was his work so important?

Thanks to a legendary performance by Ian Botham in the Ashes Test Series of 1981 and, more recently Alastair Cooke’s Test run record, the Leeds suburb of Headingley is probably more famous for its association with sporting prowess than with scientific achievement.

Yet almost directly over the road from the world-famous cricket ground stands the former home of a scientific pioneer who not only played a role in one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 20th century but who also helped to found a whole new scientific discipline that has had a powerful impact on science and medicine today.

Once described as ‘scientist, scholar, musician, bon viveur, humorist, in some ways a swashbuckler’, William Astbury was a physicist who became fascinated by biology and was convinced that the best way to study life was by using the tools of physics.

Starting from studies on wool fibres, he pioneered the use of X-rays to study the structure of the giant molecular fibres found in living systems. In the course of this work he made early studies of the structure of DNA, the genetic molecule, and his laboratory at Leeds was once hailed by the Nobel laureate Max Perutz as ‘the X-ray Vatican’. Yet today his name is hardly known beyond Leeds, other than to a select group of historians of science.

Despite his international stature, Astbury came from a humble background. He was born in 1898 in the market town of Longton, near Stoke-on-Trent, where his father worked as a potter’s turner and furniture maker. Recognising that her son showed academic flair from an early age, Astbury’s mother nurtured his talents.

Her drive and determination were rewarded when he won a scholarship first to Longton High School and later to Jesus College, Cambridge. Astbury's undergraduate studies were soon interrupted by the First World War during which he served in Ireland with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in charge of a medical X-ray unit.

Leeds needed ‘a keen young man’ who could use X-ray crystallography to reveal important new insights about the molecular nature of wool.

Since the discovery of X-rays in 1895, the medical profession had been quick to seize upon their remarkable power to penetrate human tissue and reveal the underlying bone structure, but by the time that Astbury took up his posting, scientists had already discovered that X-rays could do far, far more

One of the most eminent names in this field of research was Cavendish Professor of Physics at Leeds William Bragg who, collaborating with his son in 1913, had developed a ground-breaking new method which used the scattering, or ‘diffraction’ of X-rays to determine the precise arrangement of atoms and molecules in a crystal. Known as X-ray crystallography, 28 Nobel prizes have since been awarded for discoveries made using this method and for their achievement, William and Lawrence Bragg were themselves jointly awarded the 1915 Nobel prize in physics.

At the end of the war, Astbury completed his studies and joined William Bragg’s research team, first at University College London and then the Royal Institution. Bragg set him the challenge of finding out whether X-ray crystallography might be used not just to determine the structure of simple crystals but also of more complex fibrous materials found in living organisms.

While of fundamental scientific interest, this was a question which also had very practical applications. Ever since the end of the 19th century there had been growing concern that Britain might be overtaken by economic rivals, particularly Germany, which excelled in applying basic science to industry and providing its manufacturing workforce with a solid training in science.

In response to these concerns there was a feeling that if Britain was not to be left standing economically it must emulate the example of Germany in applying basic science to industry. Bragg had one particular industry in mind that he felt might benefit from the insights offered by X-ray crystallography.

diffraction from DNA by Florence Bell
In Astbury's lab, Florence Bell took the first ever photographs of diffraction patterns from DNA fibres. Image credit University of Leeds Library.

Ever since the Cistercian monks at Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds had sold the fleeces of their sheep to foreign merchants, wool had come to dominate the local economy and account for a large proportion of its wealth. At one point the city boasted the world’s largest woollen mill owned by the industrialist Benjamin Gott and the importance of textiles to Leeds is still reflected today in the city’s coat of arms which bears a hanging fleece.

Yet despite the importance of textiles to the city, Bragg had lamented before his departure to London that the Textile department at Leeds ‘does not know enough physics’. Leeds needed ‘a keen young man’ who could use X-ray crystallography to reveal important new insights about the molecular nature of wool. When Astbury joined his team in London, Bragg was confident that he had found the ideal candidate for this role.

Astbury, however, did not share the enthusiasm of his mentor. In a letter written to his friend and fellow crystallographer JD Bernal in September 1928 he said that leaving the Royal Institution to take up the new post of Lecturer in Textile Physics at Leeds left him feeling as if he was “going into the wilderness.”

Dismissed by some as being ‘biochemically lifeless and uninteresting’, wool did not seem like a promising subject on which to build a scientific career, yet it was from his initial X-ray studies of wool fibres that Astbury established himself both as an international authority on the study of biological fibres using X-rays and as the standard bearer for a whole new science. Popularised by Astbury as ‘molecular biology’, this new scientific discipline aimed to understand living systems in terms of the shape of the giant molecules from which they were made.

Working with a passion and excitement that his colleague RD Preston once described as being “boisterous to the end with every morning a Christmas morning”, Astbury now turned his attention to a whole range of other fibrous materials, including DNA, the molecule which we today know to be at the centre of heredity.

In 1938, his research assistant Florence Bell took the very first successful X-ray photographs of DNA fibres and from these early studies by Bell and Astbury, the Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick gained an important foothold when they began their own work on the structure of DNA, for which they would eventually be awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

William Astbury and Florence Bell
William Astbury with Florence Bell, who came to Leeds to join Astbury's laboratory in 1937. Courtesty of University of Leeds Library

By the end of the Second World War, Astbury had a grand vision of establishing Leeds as the national centre for molecular biology and in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor in 1945, he declared that “Leeds should be bold and help to lead the way” in this emerging new science. 

In support of Astbury’s vision, the University Senate passed a resolution to establish a new research unit dedicated to studying the structure of biomolecules with Astbury as its head. Much to Astbury’s irritation however they refused to allow him to use the name ‘molecular biology’ in the title, insisting instead that it be called ‘The Department of Biomolecular Structure.’ Astbury referred to it as “that rather ridiculous mouthful.”

Semantics aside, there was the rather more urgent problem of how to fund the new unit, a golden opportunity for which came early in 1946 when Astbury was invited to London to present his case before the Medical Research Council (MRC). Sadly however, the MRC did not share his vision and they rejected his proposal for funding, forcing him to return to what he lamented as ‘the cap-in-hand’ business (a description which may be familiar to many researchers in academia today).

Rejection by the MRC came as a severe blow to Astbury’s spirits, and on top of this there were more immediate challenges. Today, the Astbury Centre headed by Professor Sheena Radford for Structural Biology at the University of Leeds is internationally renowned for producing top-quality research housed in an impressive building on campus, but this is a far cry from its origins. Astbury’s new unit was originally housed in 9 Beechgrove Terrace, an old row of Victorian terraced houses that stood opposite the Student Union building but which have since been demolished.

As a former residential home, the property required extensive work before it was fit for use as a scientific research laboratory and fell far short of what Astbury had hoped for, described once by him as being ‘a makeshift and poor solution’. Yet despite having to contend with a number of challenges, not the least of which was regular flooding, Astbury continued his work here and in 1951 his research assistant, Elwyn Beighton, took some new X-ray photos of DNA that showed a striking pattern of black spots in the shape of a cross.

Nearly two years later, an almost identical image known as ‘Photo 51’, taken by the King’s College scientist Rosalind Franklin and her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, would provide James Watson with an important clue in the quest to solve the structure of DNA. Yet whilst Watson later recalled how ‘Photo 51’ made his jaw drop and his pulse race, Beighton’s near identical image elicited no such excitement in Astbury: he never published it in a scientific journal nor did he ever present it at a meeting and it was the last piece of work on DNA that he did.

"Leeds should be bold and help to lead the way."

William Astbury

Astbury’s apparent failure to grasp the significance of Beighton’s photographs may well account for his lapse into obscurity. But whether this would be a fair or accurate way to remember him is another question entirely.

More than thirty years after his legendary cricket performance at Headingley, Ian Botham’s name is still well known, because when writing the history of sport, it is the winners who are remembered. All too often there is a tendency to write the history of science in a very similar way, with clear winners and losers in a race to the finish line. Nowhere is this truer than in the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Yet the flaw in such accounts is that they interpret the past in terms of the present – the route to which looks obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Writing history in this way overlooks Astbury’s true scientific legacy which went far beyond DNA. Historians and philosophers of science will no doubt continue to debate these issues. Whilst they do, what remains certain is that thanks to William Astbury and his work, Leeds has a scientific heritage of which it can be proud.

Chain molecules and classical music

Mozart's hair

X-ray diffraction image of Mozart's hair taken by Asbury's research assitant Elwyn Beigthon in 1958. (By permission of Astbury and Beighton familes)

Astbury was a passionate communicator of science and would regularly explain to both lay and scientific audiences how the idea of giant chain molecules changing shape could account for everyday phenomena such as the boiling of an egg or the perming of hair.

Along with science, another of his great passions was for classical music and this furnished him with a poetic image when explaining the importance of these large molecules, by describing them as ‘nature’s chosen instrument in the symphony of creation’.

In a wonderful convergence of these two passions, he once exhibited an X-ray image which showed the patterns made when X-rays were scattered by the fibrous protein keratin in human hair. On one occasion, this image is said to have even moved him to tears as the hair fibres that were used in the experiment had actually come from the head of none other than Mozart, who was one of Astbury’s favourite composers.

The lock of hair arrived at the University in the 1950s, along with a collection of donated documents, and remains in the University's collection today. "It is a long and romantic story how it finally arrived there," said Astbury. "But to me, a devotee of Mozart and keratin, the most exciting outcome was to have this opportunity of examing it by X-rays. The photograph is a typical alpha-diagram like any other that could be obtained from mammalian hair, but my fine-structural friends who share with me the fortunate capacity of being able to forget from time to time the cares of fibres in the joys of music will know that it is far more precious than just that."

The man in the monkey nut suit

monkey nut coat
Cartoon from the Yorkshire Evening Post, January 1944

Astbury sported an overcoat which had been woven from an experimental fibre called ‘Ardil’ that was made by deliberately unraveling the chains of the main protein component of monkeynuts, and refolding these chains 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.

Not that Astbury himself was entirely comfortable with this idea, for having spent his career passionately evangelising for molecular biology, he was also deeply concerned that a solely reductionist and mechanistic view of life might leave humanity with a severely diminished and impoverished view of itself.

Written by Dr Kersten Hall (MA History and Philosophy of Science 2008), a visiting fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science.