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Celebrating the work of a neglected scientific pioneer
Date:6/16/2014

A University of Leeds academic has shed important new light on the fascinating story of a pioneer whose contribution to one of science's biggest discoveries has long been overlooked.

From the late 1920s, University of Leeds biophysicist William T Astbury carried out groundbreaking work using X-rays to study the molecular structure of wool fibres for the West Yorkshire textile industry.

As a result, Professor Astbury helped transform our understanding of biology and made the very first studies of the structure of DNA, so helping to lay the foundations for the 1953 discovery of its double-helical structure by the Cambridge scientists James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet while they went on to win the Nobel Prize, Professor Astbury's name is barely remembered outside Leeds.

Setting Professor Astbury and his work against the wider social and historical backdrop of the time, The Man in the Monkeynut Coat, by Visiting Fellow Kersten Hall, explores the life of this long neglected pioneer.

The book also argues that Professor Astbury's true scientific legacy extends far beyond DNA. Using the method of X-ray diffraction which had been developed at Leeds a few years earlier by his mentor, Sir William Bragg, Cavendish Professor of Physics at Leeds from 1908-1915, Professor Astbury blazed the trail in using this technique to explore the physical structure of the giant molecules that make up living things.

In doing so, he came to be one of the most prominent evangelists for the new science of molecular biology, which sought to understand life in terms of molecular shapes.

Dr Hall, a molecular biologist and science historian, said: "The discovery of the structure of DNA was without doubt one of the biggest landmarks in the history of science. It transformed our understanding of biology and enabled huge advances in medicine such as the production of new forms of insulin for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes.

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Contact: Gareth Dant
g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk
01-133-433-996
University of Leeds
Source:Eurekalert  

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