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The Man in the Monkeynut Coat

William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix

Revised Edition

Kersten T. Hall

02 August 2022

ISBN: 9780198766964

272 pages

In Stock

Price: £16.99

Tells the story of the English physicist and molecular biologist William T. Astbury and how his work forms a previously untold chapter in the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA.



Tells the story of the English physicist and molecular biologist William T. Astbury and how his work forms a previously untold chapter in the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

  • Introduces a previously forgotten pioneer who played a pivotal role in one of the most important scientific discoveries in history
  • Reveals that the vital information contained in 'Photo 51' taken by Rosalind Franklin had actually been discovered two years earlier by Astbury
  • Shows how it was thanks to Astbury that Watson and Crick were not beaten to the double-helix by their closest rival, the US chemist, Linus Pauling
  • Shows how Astbury also pioneered the emergence of the powerful new science of molecular biology

About the Author(s)

Kersten T. Hall, Visiting Fellow, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds

Kersten Hall graduated from St. Anne's College, Oxford University, with BA Honours in Biochemistry before completing a PhD at the University of Leeds on the regulation of human genes by viruses. He then worked as a research fellow in molecular biology in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. During this time he cultivated a growing interest in the history of science and is now a Visiting Fellow in the School of Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science at the University of Leeds where his research focuses on the history of genetics and molecular biology. He lives in Leeds with his wife and two sons.

Table of Contents

    1:A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
    2:Germany Has Much to Teach us
    3:A Keen Young Man
    4:Into the Wilderness
    5:The X-Ray Vatican
    6:A Pile of Pennies
    7:Avery's Bombshell
    8:Nunc Dimittis
    9:One Grand Leap ... Too Far
    10:The Road Not Taken
    11:The Man in the Monkeynut Coat


"Construction of the Watson-Crick model of DNA in the middle of the last century was a key event in scientific history. The surrounding controversies and the larger-than-life players have been widely described but continue to fascinate. By focussing on the lesser known figure of William Astbury, a pioneer in X-ray diffraction studies of biological fibres, this readable account brings a fresh interpretation and new insight. Astbury, widely regarded as a founder of molecular biology, is also shown to have had an understanding of protein structure that was ahead of its time, an understanding that helped create new textiles and a 'monkeynut' coat. " - Iain Campbell, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford

"This fascinating biography of the founder of molecular biology, the biocrystallographer Willam Astbury, reads like a detective story. Very rich in details, it paints a vivid picture of the scientific scene round Astbury, and reveals some unknown key aspects of the quest for the structure of DNA." - André Authier, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris

"The storyline works very well and I was gripped from the beginning to the end of the book. The author describes numerous stories that capture the human interest aspects of doing science, with its pains and its jubilations. " - John R. Helliwell, University of Manchester

"... an excellent, stylish historical account of the early days of biophysics. " - The Biologist, Professor Jack Cohen FSB

"Fascinating book. I particularly enjoyed reading about Astbury's background and impressive wide-ranging activities. " - Jenifer Glynn, author of My Sister Rosalind Franklin

"Hall''s book provides a useful historical corrective to the notion that all scientists are heroes; some of them are disappointed men. " - The Guardian, Stephen Curry

"In The Double Helix, James Watson wrote the Leeds scientist William Astbury out of the story of what, for many, is the greatest biological discovery of the twentieth century. With this superb book, Kersten Hall has written Astbury back in. The result is far more than the biography we have long needed of this colourful and creative pioneer of molecular biology (as Astbury was among the first to call it). In Hall's marvellously readable and deeply researched pages, the development of that science emerges as inseparable from the fortunes of the textiles industry — and from the misfortunes of a man who, like the monkeynut coat he helped to invent, disappeared into obscurity despite huge initial promise. " - Gregory Radick, University of Leeds

"...a fine piece of historical writing rich with illuminating detail and with real excitement for the subject. " - The British Journal for the History of Science, Kenneth E. Hendrickson

"A very persuasive argument ... I was left in no doubt that Astbury left the scientific world a better and more interesting place." - Rhys Baker, Bio News

"Hall tells his story with style and pace. " - Georgina Ferry, Nature

"I have not been disappointed ... beautifully written and easy to read ... a job very well done. " - John Jenkin, author of William and Lawrence Bragg, Father and Son: The Most Extraordinary Collaboration in Science

"Very well-written and informative. " - Gholson J. Lyon, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

"Kersten Hall has brought into the limelight a normally unsung key player in the development of modern molecular and structural biology by writing this very engaging biography of William Astbury. " - Elspeth Garman, University of Oxford

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