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Book Review: The Man in the Monkeynut Coat - William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

4 August 2014
Appeared in BioNews 765

The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

By Dr Kersten Hall

Published by Oxford University Press

ISBN-10: 0198704593, ISBN-13: 978-0198704591

Buy this book from from Amazon UK

'It was late January in 1953. The coming year would see a new young queen crowned in Britain, Everest conquered, and Joseph Stalin dead. But of all these events, perhaps the most momentous was a short paper that appeared in the scientific journal Nature of April that year'.

The paper Dr Kersten T. Hall is referring to is the Crick and Watson classic proposing a structure for DNA. And it probably isn't overselling the importance of the paper by pitching it as the most momentous event of 1953. Knowledge of the structure of DNA has permitted humanity to treat diabetes, address world hunger and personalise medical treatment. But Crick and Watson were not the sole architects of this new discovery.

William Astbury is regarded as the father of molecular biology. He is credited with the first X-ray photographs of DNA, the first instance of comparative palaeontology, and he inspired (and collaborated with) Nobel Laureates Linus Pauling, Max Perutz, and Maurice Wilkins. Astbury took key photographs of DNA two years before those taken by Rosalind Franklin and seen by Watson. He was one imaginative leap away from solving the structure of DNA. And yet, if you are anything like me, this is the first time you have heard his name.

Between the discovery of X-rays in 19th century Germany and the unpicking of DNA's structure in 20th century Cambridge, Hall treats the reader to 200 pages of scientific, political and cultural evolution. From a detailed biography of Astbury's mentor, Sir William Bragg, and his development of X-ray crystallography, to the huge number of discoveries in fibrous protein structure and the shaping of pre- and post-war science in Britain, there is not a dull moment. Hall explains each discovery simply and through the context of a key scientist. More than a chronicle of achievements, this is a timeline of struggles, disappointments and eureka moments.

If you are looking for a succinct biography of William Astbury, look elsewhere. This is much more the 'Forgotten Road to the Double Helix' with Astbury pitched as the protagonist. It took a while to realise this. In the early chapters, it felt like Astbury had a bit-part in his own play, and the constant anecdotes and stories from the life of this textile physics lecturer at the University of Leeds felt a bit tenuous and unnecessary. Keep reading, and these diversions suddenly make sense. The rise of molecular biology and the Biophysics department at King's College London (where Rosalind Franklin obtained the famous 'Photo 51') is intrinsically linked to Leeds' growth, development and decline as a worldwide textiles powerhouse. The life stories of the vast supporting cast explain why certain characters met and chose to collaborate or compete.

Those who take a casual interest in science and expert biologists alike will enjoy this book. Illustrations are skilfully used; where none are available, Hall deftly deploys an analogy. One of the greatest pleasures of this book comes in the use of letters between the major scientists in the narrative. Hall subtly reveals the personalities of the protagonists – and the political deals of 20th century science – through their own correspondence. This is an excellent example of 'show, don't tell'.

The Man in the Monkeynut Coat argues that William Astbury deserves the same recognition as Crick and Watson. It is a very persuasive argument. Astbury may not have succeeded in creating a synthetic fibre to outdo wool (indeed, he complained that a suit made of his monkeynut fibre, Ardil, wore out too quickly – particularly in the seat) but I was left in no doubt that Astbury left the scientific world a better and more interesting place.

Buy The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix from Amazon UK.

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