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Sir Isaac Newton once declared that his momentous discoveries were only made thanks to having 'stood on the shoulders of giants'. The same might also be said of the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick. Their discovery of the structure of DNA was, without doubt, one of the biggest scientific landmarks in history and, thanks largely to the success of Watson's best-selling memoir 'The Double Helix', there might seem to be little new to say about this story.
But much remains to be said about the particular 'giants' on whose shoulders Watson and Crick stood. Of these, the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose famous X-ray diffraction photograph known as 'Photo 51' provided Watson and Crick with a vital clue, is now well recognised. Far less well known is the physicist William T. Astbury who, working at Leeds in the 1930s on the structure of wool for the local textile industry, pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography to study biological fibres. In so doing, he not only made the very first studies of the structure of DNA culminating in a photo almost identical to Franklin's 'Photo 51', but also founded the new science of 'molecular biology'.
Yet whilst Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize, Astbury has largely been forgotten. The Man in the Monkeynut Coat tells the story of this neglected pioneer, showing not only how it was thanks to him that Watson and Crick were not left empty-handed, but also how his ideas transformed biology leaving a legacy which is still felt today.
1: A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
2: Germany Has Much to Teach us
3: A Keen Young Man
4: Into the Wilderness
5: The X-Ray Vatican
6: A Pile of Pennies
7: Avery's Bombshell
8: Nunc Dimittis
9: One Grand Leap ... Too Far
10: The Road Not Taken
11: The Man in the Monkeynut Coat
Kersten Hall graduated from St. Anne's College, Oxford, with BA Honours in Biochemistry before completing a PhD at the University of Leeds on the regulation of human genes by viruses. He then worked as a research fellow in molecular biology in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. During this time he cultivated a growing interest in the history of science and is now a Visiting Fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds where his research focuses on the history of genetics and molecular biology. He lives in Leeds with his wife and two sons.
"[...] an excellent, stylish historical account of the early days of biophysics."
– The Biologist, Professor Jack Cohen FSB
"[...] a fine piece of historical writing rich with illuminating detail and with real excitement for the subject."
– The British Journal for the History of Science, Kenneth E. Hendrickson
"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."
– Professor Elspeth Garman, University of Oxford
"Very well-written and informative"
– Gholson J. Lyon, Assistant Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
"Fascinating book. I particularly enjoyed reading about Astbury's background and impressive wide-ranging activites"
– Jenifer Glynn, author of My Sister Rosalind Franklin
"I have not been disappointed [...] beautifully written and easy to read [...] a job very well done"
– John Jenkin, author of William and Lawrence Bragg, Father and Son: The Most Extraordinary Collaboration in Science
"A very persuasive argument [...] I was left in no doubt that Astbury left the scientific world a better and more interesting place"
– Rhys Baker, Bio News
"Hall tells his story with style and pace."
– Georgina Ferry, Nature
"The eponymous hero of this biography is William Astbury, one of the early pioneers of structural biology. In the 1930s his lab was the first to use X-ray diffraction to reveal clues about the internal structure of fibrous proteins and DNA. Astbury is a forgotten man outside the corridors of academia because the structural analyses that finally succeeded in deciphering his data were done by Pauling, who figured out the geometry of the alpha-helices and beta-strands within protein molecules, and by Watson and Crick, who were the first to conceive DNA’s elegant double helix. Hall’s book provides a useful historical corrective to the notion that all scientists are heroes; some of them are disappointed men."
– Stephen Curry, The Guardian, 01-01-2015, "Books of the year 2014"
"Construction of the Watson-Crick model of DNA in the middle of the last century was a key event in scientific history. The surrounding controversies and the larger-than-life players have been widely described but continue to fascinate. By focussing on the lesser known figure of William Astbury, a pioneer in X-ray diffraction studies of biological fibres, this readable account brings a fresh interpretation and new insight. Astbury, widely regarded as a founder of molecular biology, is also shown to have had an understanding of protein structure that was ahead of its time, an understanding that helped create new textiles and a 'monkeynut' coat."
– Iain Campbell, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
"This fascinating biography of the founder of molecular biology, the biocrystallographer William Astbury, reads like a detective story. Very rich in details, it paints a vivid picture of the scientific scene round Astbury, and reveals some unknown key aspects of the quest for the structure of DNA. "
– André Authier, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris
"The storyline works very well and I was gripped from the beginning to the end of the book. The author describes numerous stories that capture the human interest aspects of doing science, with its pains and its jubilations."
– John R. Helliwell, University of Manchester
"In The Double Helix, James Watson wrote the Leeds scientist William Astbury out of the story of what, for many, is the greatest biological discovery of the twentieth century. With this superb book, Kersten Hall has written Astbury back in. The result is far more than the biography we have long needed of this colourful and creative pioneer of molecular biology (as Astbury was among the first to call it). In Hall's marvellously readable and deeply researched pages, the development of that science emerges as inseparable from the fortunes of the textiles industry – and from the misfortunes of a man who, like the monkeynut coat he helped to invent, disappeared into obscurity despite huge initial promise."
– Gregory Radick, University of Leeds