'A Scientific Lollipop'
Astbury's application of X-ray anaysis to
biological fibres generated images like this one shown
below which on one occasion is said to have moved Astbury to tears!
reason that the image stirred such emotions is because the fibres used
for the X-ray experiment came from a lock of hair from the composer
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - who happened to be one of Astbury's favourite
composers! The hair sample was given by his widow to Vincent Novello in
1829 and found its way to the University of Leeds in a set of travel
diaries and documents that were donated by the Novello family to the
University in the 1950s. The X-ray diffraction photograph was taken by Dr. Elwyn Beighton in 1958.
Astbury presented this image, which he described as a 'scientific lollipop' at the Jubilee Conference of
the Textile Institute, saying:
"It is a long and romantic story how it finally arrived
there, 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 fibre diagram that Astbury
obtained from the lock of Mozart’s hair shows
rather indistinct arcs rather than sharp spots. This is
partly because of the irregular order of the amino
acids in keratin, but also because the protein chains
are coiled up in a complicated way. Each chain is wound
into a tight helix, and then pairs of chains are wound
round each other – the picture here shows just a
short length of such a ‘coiled-coil’.
Mozart’s hair was neither more nor less
regular than yours or mine – perhaps he was a
mere mortal after all!