Hair Splitting Observations: Scientist William Astbury's X-ray Vision opens at the Thackray

By Culture24 Staff | 01 July 2010
a sepia toned photograph of a young man in a suit

Exhibition: Hairsplitting Images – How William Astbury’s X-ray Vision Changed the World, Thackray Museum, Leeds, until January 2 2011

As part of a nationwide programme commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, the Thackray Museum in Leeds is exploring the life and work of local X-ray pioneer William Astbury (above).

Paying tribute to this Leeds-based scientist, the exhibition brings archival material and personal records together for the first time, explaining how Atsbury's observations led to the discovery of the double-helix and the structure of DNA.

Astbury gained a first-class degree in Physics from Cambridge University in 1921 and soon established himself as an expert in X-ray crystallography, a technique which had been developed by Professor William Henry Bragg at Leeds University.

This was the foundation of a career that took the science of X-ray crystallography, which was originally used to determine the molecular structure of crystals, to a new level.

a photo of a man looking into a large microscope-like contraption

Atsbury's observations led to the discovery of the double-helix and the structure of DNA. Image © The Yorkshire Post

Following his appointment as a Lecturer in the Department of Textile Industries at the University of Leeds in 1928, he developed x-ray crystallographic techniques which could determine the structures of more complex compounds, including the proteins that occur in wool, hair, muscle and many other materials in both the human and animal kingdoms.

His amazing x-ray photographs of fibrous materials such as wet wool made Astbury's laboratory famous throughout the world. It also led to our modern-day understanding of living things and helped pave the way for new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's.

By the 1930s he had made great strides in the understanding of molecular biology and, in 1938, his team took the first x-ray diffraction pictures of DNA. Those who eventually identified its "double helix" structure in 1953 would not have been able to do so without the pioneering work of Astbury and his colleagues.

William Astbury became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1940 and Professor of Biomolecular Structure at the University of Leeds in 1945.

Find out more about William Astbury on two websites developed by the University of Leeds at www.leeds.ac.uk/heritage/Astbury/index.html and www.leeds.ac.uk/hpsmuseum/astbury.htm.

Further information about the Royal Society can be found at www.royalsociety.org or by joining the Royal Society 350th anniversary Facebook group.

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