photo of W.T.Astbury

William T. Astbury was a physicist who pioneered the use of X-rays to explore the structures of biological macromolecules found within living cells. In so doing, he not only made the very first attempt to solve the structure of DNA, the molecule of heredity, but also popularised a new approach to the study of living systems - molecular biology -which sought to understand organisms in terms of the giant chain molecules of which they were composed.

Astbury was fondly remembered by his colleague R.D.Preston as being 'a man of many parts - scientist, scholar, musician, bon viveur, humorist, in some ways a swashbuckler'. Such was his scientific prowess and reputation that the Nobel Prize winning Austrian scientist Max Perutz once hailed Astbury's laboratory at Leeds as 'the X-ray Vatican'. Why then have we heard so little about him? One possible answer to this question may be  because the history of science is very often one which is 'written by the winners', as Dr. Kersten Hall, author of 'The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix' (Oxford University Press) explains in an interview which you can read here.

In 2010, the Museum of History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Leeds organised an exhibition exploring Astbury's work. You can explore the contents of the exhibition here and use the 'Contents' menu on the left of this page to explore various other aspects of Astbury's life and work.

Website constructed and written by K. Hall and E.Winterburn, Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds

Page last updated: 03/03/2015

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