'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!


The 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."

Model of keratin

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!

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