By Kersten Hall, University of Leeds

When Florence Bell addressed a group of delegates about research into textile fibres at the Institute of Physics conference held in Leeds in 1939, she probably wasn’t expecting to shatter any fundamental physical laws of the universe. Yet to read the press reports that followed her presentation you could be forgiven for thinking she had done exactly that. Whilst the ‘Yorkshire Evening News’ reported that one of the main attractions of the meeting was ‘the closest approach yet made to perpetual motion’, its headline writers seemed to be far more interested in the apparent violation of a very different kind of natural order. In response to being asked about the likelihood of a woman being able to preach, the 18th century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson is said to have once famously remarked that the likelihood of such an occurrence was comparable to a dog walking on its hind legs, and with their headline ‘Woman Scientist Explains’, it appears that the local press felt the same way about a woman speaking with any authority on scientific matters.

Whilst Bell might well have been flattered to be described as a ‘slim 25-year old Cambridge University graduate’, it is far more likely that she would wish to be remembered for the legacy of her scientific work, which was to have an impact that was felt far beyond the woollen mills of West Yorkshire. For Bell’s work helped to lay the foundations for the emerging new science of ‘molecular biology’ and one of the biggest discoveries of the 20th century – the structure of DNA, the molecule of heredity.

Although her work had its roots in the humble wool fibre, at the heart of Bell’s research was an idea that promised to transform biology – that the complexity of living systems was best understood by studying the shape of the giant molecules from which they were composed. One of the most passionate and vocal standard bearers for this new science of ‘molecular biology’ was Bell’s supervisor, the physicist William T. Astbury who, from initial research done in the late 1920s  to study the protein fibres in wool using a method known as X-ray crystallography, had established himself as such a renowned international authority on the structure of biological fibres that his laboratory at Leeds is said to have once been hailed by the Nobel Laureate Max Perutz as ‘the X-ray Vatican’.

As Astbury’s ambitions grew, he needed a skilled X-ray crystallographer and in Florence Bell he found just what he was looking for. After graduating from Girton College, Cambridge where she had read Natural Sciences, specialising in chemistry, physics and mineralogy, Bell had learned the methods of X-ray crystallography from J.D.Bernal who, like Astbury was an early pioneer of applying this method to the study of biological molecules. She had then moved to the University of Manchester for a short period where she worked with Lawrence Bragg who, together with his father William had been jointly awarded the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of X-ray crystallography.  When, in 1937 Astbury wrote to Bragg saying that he was looking for a good X-ray crystallographer, Bragg replied to say that Bell would be an ‘excellent candidate’ who is ‘capable and experienced and really gets on with the job’.

Astbury quickly recognised Bell’s talents and it was for this reason that he entrusted her to represent the work of his laboratory at the 1939 conference. But he also gave her another important task. Although Astbury had built his career on the study of proteins, another type of biological fibre had now caught his interest. This was DNA which, although today is central to our understanding of genetics, was thought at the time to be little more than a dull repetitive molecule incapable of fulfilling any important role. Bell’s work showed that DNA had a regular ordered structure that was amenable to analysis by X-ray crystallography – a discovery which paved the way for the later work on the structure of DNA by Maurice Wilkins and then continued by Rosalind Franklin. From her studies Bell was also able to derive key measurements about the dimensions of the molecule which gave James Watson and Francis Crick and important foothold when they began their own work to solve the structure of DNA.

Unfortunately, however, Bell’s promising work on DNA was overtaken by events in the wider world. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Bell was summoned for war service and in 1941 she left Astbury’s laboratory to serve as a radio operator in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Though listing her as ‘absent on National Service’, the University of Leeds extended her post in case she wished to return after war service and, desperate that Bell should be able to return to his laboratory, Astbury  wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation to secure her funding and to the War Office explaining that he ‘could hardly carry on without her help’. Sadly, his plea was in vain – for even had the War Office been willing to release Bell from her war duties, matters of the heart had by now intervened. In January 1943, Bell wrote to the registrar of the University of Leeds to thank him for keeping her post open, but to say that she would be unable to return to her research as, having just married an American serviceman, she would soon be leaving for the United States.

The loss of Bell was a severe blow to Astbury- and it was soon followed by another setback when, in the aftermath of the Second World War, his hopes of founding a national centre for molecular biology were dashed following rejection of his proposal by the Medical Research Council. Nevertheless, he continued his work on DNA and, in 1951, his research assistant Elwyn Beighton took some new X-ray photographs of DNA that were almost identical to ‘Photo 51‘, the X-ray image taken by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling which, in his memoir ‘The Double Helix’, James Watson said had made his jaw drop and his pulse race, and which provided him and Crick with one of several important clues.

Astbury’s response to Beighton’s images could not have been more different to that of Watson. He never published them in a journal, or presented them at a meeting – in fact, they marked the end of his work on DNA. Of the many reasons that  have been proposed to explain why such a renowned pioneer of X-ray crystallography as Astbury apparently failed to grasp the significance of Beighton’s images one is that he was now beset with an increasing sense of disillusionment with science. One reason for this was certainly his failure to establish the centre for molecular biology that he had hoped, but perhaps an even greater and, ultimately more debilitating sense of disappointment, came from the loss of Bell and her many talents.

For while Astbury certainly valued Bell’s practical skills as an X-ray crystallographer, he also valued her intellect – particularly her willingness to challenge and criticise his thinking which led him to dub her his ‘vox diabolica’, or ‘Devil’s Advocate’. It was certainly a fitting title, for Bell did far more than simply challenge Astbury’s occasional tendency towards scientific flights of fancy. Like the headline writers of the Yorkshire Evening News, Astbury had an innate sense that science was an exclusively male occupation and in a letter to Lawrence Bragg, he had even once confessed to be ‘one of those people that still maintain that there is a creative spark in the male that is absent from women, even though the latter do so often such marvellously conscientious and thorough work after the spark has been struck.’ Yet in Florence Bell he had found a woman who was capable of striking a scientific spark as well as any man and without whom perhaps, his own energy and focus began to fade.

Mention a female scientist whose role in the story of DNA has been overlooked and the usual name that springs to mind is that of Rosalind Franklin, once described by her colleague Maurice Wilkins as our ‘dark lady’.  In recognition of Franklin’s important contribution, her grave was given listed status to coincide with International Women’s Day 2017. But perhaps she herself in turn owes a debt of thanks to Florence Bell who, having pioneered the X-ray methods used to study the structure of DNA, disappeared into the historiographic shadows and has remained there ever since.

Institutional affiliation

A former molecular biologist, Dr. Kersten Hall is now Visiting Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, at the University of Leeds, UK. His book ‘The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix’ was shortlisted for the 2015 BSHS Dingle Prize and featured on a list of ‘Books of 2014′ as chosen by a reviewer at ‘The Guardian’ newspaper (www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2015/jan/01/books-of-the-year-2014)

Further reading

Hall, KT. (2014) ‘The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and the Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix’ (Oxford University Press).

Maddox, B. (2002) Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Harper Collins.

Olby, R. (1974) ‘The Path to the Double-Helix’,pp.41-70. Dover Publications, New York.

Watson JD (1968) The Double Helix. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Astbury WT & Bell FO (1938a) X-ray studies of thymonucleic acid. Nature 141: 747-748.

Astbury, W.T., & Bell, F.O. (1938b). Some recent developments in the X-ray study of proteins and related structures. Cold-Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, 6, 109-118.

http://www.leeds.ac.uk/heritage/Astbury/Astbury_and_Bell_photo/index.html

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Keywords

X-ray crystallography
DNA
William Astbury
Florence Bell
Rosalind Franklin

Image:

Title: ‘Woman Scientist Explains’
Caption:  Florence Bell presents work done on textile fibres in the laboratory of William Astbury, at a conference held in Leeds by the Institute of Physics in 1939.
Creator: The Yorkshire Evening News
Publisher/license: Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. (MS419 A1) Date: 1939

Image reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library, MS419 Box A.1 Astbury Papers, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.