by Kersten Hall
Having followed a grim urban odyssey from the pockets of a Leeds pimp into a busker’s cap and then the bottom of a wishing well, the numismatic narrator of current British poet laureate (2019-2029) Simon Armitage’s ‘Ten Pence Story’ reflects that while “All coins have dreams,” its own will go sadly unfulfilled. For rather than deciding the toss at a Wembley Cup final, the humble coin in Armitage’s tale knows that a far less glorious fate lies ahead:
Some day I know I’ll be bagged up and sent
to that knacker’s yard for the over-spent
to be broken, boiled, unmade and replaced,
for my metals to go their separate ways…
Had Armitage chosen the new 50 pence coin just released by the Royal Mint in July to be his narrator, it would have told a very different—and happier—story. Released to mark what would have been the hundredth birthday of scientist Rosalind Franklin, the new coin commemorates her X-ray studies that were crucial to solving the structure of DNA. Designed by Royal Mint graphic designer David Knapton, the coin depicts the famous cross-shaped pattern at the center of “Photo 51,” the X-ray image of DNA taken by Franklin and her PhD student Raymond Gosling while they were working at King’s College, London in 1952. It is the first time that a woman scientist has featured on a UK coin.
At first sight the image—both on the coin and the actual photograph (see below)—looks as if it would be at home hanging on the wall of a gallery of contemporary art, but when James Watson was first shown it, its effect, he claimed in his famous The Double Helix, was epiphanic: “The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race…the black cross of reflections which dominated the picture could only arise from a helical structure.”
Watson knew that only a molecule that was coiled into a helical shape would scatter X-rays to give this cross-shaped pattern. Armed with this and some of Franklin’s other key X-ray measurements, he and Francis Crick were able to solve the structure of DNA. Little wonder then that a plaque on the wall outside King’s College, London where Franklin and Gosling worked, hails “Photo 51” as “one of the most important photographs in the world.”
Yet neither Watson nor indeed Franklin, who produced the image, was actually the first to see this all important pattern. For already in 1951, one year earlier, Elwyn Beighton, a young doctoral student at the University of Leeds had taken a set of almost X-ray identical images of DNA.
Beighton was working in a new department that had been established by the scientist William Astbury to champion what he popularized as “molecular biology.” Though a physicist by background, Astbury had become fascinated by biology and was convinced that the best way to solve the complexities of living systems was by using the methods of physics to study their molecular structure. Through his work in this field, Astbury established himself as an international authority in using X-rays to study biological molecules—but his work had had an unusual and far from glamorous origin.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Astbury had carried out X-ray studies of the fibrous proteins in wool for the local textile industries of West Yorkshire. During the course of this work, he had also turned his attention to another white, stringy fiber—DNA. In 1938, his research assistant Florence Bell had shown that X-ray methods could successfully be used to reveal the regular ordered structure of DNA and in so doing had very much paved the way for Franklin and Gosling. Thirteen years later, Beighton followed up this work by taking a set of new images of DNA that showed the very same striking cross pattern that would make James Watson’s jaw drop and his pulse race.
But Astbury’s response to Beighton’s images could not have been more different than Watson’s to Franklin’s Photo 51. He never published them in a paper, or even presented them at a meeting. Instead, they were just filed away and forgotten until their rediscovery by historian Robert Olby some 40 years later.
At first sight, this oversight seems to be one of epic proportions. Could it be that Astbury hadn’t realized the importance of DNA? The evidence seems to suggest otherwise; for in fact, Astbury counted among the first small group of scientists to grasp the importance of Oswald Avery’s demonstration in 1944 that nucleic acids could confer the trait of virulence in pneumococcus. Today this breakthrough is recognized as the first evidence that DNA—and not protein—could carry hereditary traits; but few in 1944 had the foresight that Astbury showed when he hailed it as “one of the most remarkable discoveries of our time.”
Although Astbury grasped the importance of DNA, he appears to have missed the clues within Beighton’s photos. And even if he had recognized from Beighton’s photo that DNA was a helix, it is unlikely that this insight would have set his pulse racing as happened for Watson. Far more likely is that the revelation that DNA was a helix would have been a crushing disappointment to him.
For Astbury, the secret of biology lay in the three-dimensional shape of macromolecules such as proteins. Changes in molecular shape offered an explanation for the elasticity of wool, the ability of muscles to contract and of flagella to power bacteria through water. And perhaps this is what Astbury was hoping to find in DNA: a sophisticated three dimensional structure with rich variation in which hereditary traits might be manifest. Instead, Beighton’s image hinted at a simple, repetitive structure—a boring, monotonous spiral that made little sense. As a result, the photo was filed away and forgotten and, like the narrator of Armitage’s poem, Beighton was consigned to a “knacker’s yard for the over-spent.”
Beighton’s photo is more than just a historical curiosity—because Astbury’s apparent neglect of it may well have played a pivotal role in Watson and Crick’s ultimate success. In 1952, Astbury was visited at his home in Headingley, Leeds by his friend, the American chemist Linus Pauling who was feared by Francis Crick as their main rival in the race to find DNA structure. But Pauling was hamstrung by a lack of good quality X-ray diffraction images of DNA. Had Astbury shown Pauling the photos taken by Beighton, it might well have been these images and not that of Franklin that were today inscribed on a commemorative coin. Either way, it is a safe bet that this coin would not be burdened by an acute sense of its own mortality like Armitage’s mournful narrator.
Kersten Hall is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds.
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