When the Yorkshire Night Information reported on an deal with delivered by 25-year-old physicist Florence Bell at a scientific convention held in Leeds in 1939, it wasn’t her science that made the headlines, however merely the truth that she was a lady doing science.
What neither the writers who got here up with the headline “Lady Scientist Explains”, nor their readers may have identified was that, in the midst of her PhD analysis, this specific girl scientist had quietly laid the foundations for one of many greatest landmarks in twentieth century science: the invention of the construction of DNA.
With chapters describing the construction of protein fibres in jellyfish, shark fins and hair, Bell’s PhD thesis might sound an unlikely milestone in biology. However amongst these, one chapter stands out. This a part of Bell’s work describes how X-rays may very well be used to disclose the common, ordered construction of a organic fibre that on the time was known as “thymonucleic acid”.
At the moment thymonucleic acid is understood by the extra acquainted title of “deoxyribonucleic acid”, or DNA. Bell’s X-ray methodology was to grow to be a significant device in ultimately revealing the now well-known double helix form of DNA that permits it to repeat genetic info.
Bell, who was born in 1913 in London, was one in every of a rising variety of feminine college students who studied pure sciences at Girton School on the College of Cambridge.
After leaving Cambridge in 1936 Bell first spent a brief interval in Manchester with Lawrence Bragg who, collectively along with his father William, had acquired the 1915 Nobel prize in physics. The pair had proven how X-rays may very well be used to disclose the association of atoms and molecules in easy crystals equivalent to salt.
Rosalind Franklin nonetheless would not get the popularity she deserves for her DNA discovery
In 1937, Bell moved to the College of Leeds to take up a submit as a analysis assistant with the physicist William Astbury who was making use of the Braggs’ strategies to the examine of wool and different organic fibres.
Astbury’s X-ray research of the proteins in wool fibres revealed that their construction was like a molecular chain, or necklace, shaped by becoming a member of collectively smaller chemical substances known as amino acids. This molecular necklace may very well be stretched or compacted.
Though this will likely not appear vital, the actual fact these proteins may change form proved to be essential in understanding how they functioned. Astbury’s research of wool would remodel our understanding of biology at a molecular degree.
College of Leeds, Writer supplied (no reuse)
Emboldened by his success with wool, Astbury started to solid his internet wider to review different organic fibres. For this, he wanted one other pair of fingers expert on this new methodology of X-ray evaluation.
Enter Florence Bell. Along with her sharp mind and willingness to problem his concepts, Astbury known as Bell his “satan’s advocate”. He gave her the duty of utilizing X-rays to review DNA.
Taking an X-ray picture was not straightforward. It required ten-hour publicity occasions, working in a darkened room in shut proximity to excessive electrical voltages and highly regarded X-ray tubes. However Bell’s talent and tenacity paid off and in 1938, primarily based on the X-ray pictures she had taken, she and Astbury proposed an early mannequin of the DNA construction. This mannequin later gave James Watson and Francis Crick a significant foothold after they started their very own work on DNA.
Sadly nevertheless, simply because it was gathering tempo, Bell’s work on DNA was dropped at an abrupt halt. In 1941, she was summoned for navy service within the Girls’s Auxiliary Air Power. In response to one in every of her sons, Chris Sawyer, throughout her service she did early work on the event of radar (radio detection and ranging).
Astbury, in the meantime, begged the Struggle Workplace that Bell be allowed to stay in his lab, however his pleas had been in useless. The College of Leeds even saved her submit open, however Bell by no means returned.
Having married an American serviceman, Bell emigrated to the US the place she labored as an industrial chemist, earlier than giving up her profession to take care of her 4 kids. It’s presumably in reflection of those modified circumstances that when she died in 2000, her occupation on her demise certificates was recorded as “housewife”.
Sawyer recalled that later in her life his mom preferred to say that one in every of her biggest achievements was to have been the primary girl within the Royal Air Power to put on trousers. However Bell was being modest.
Along with her X-ray research of DNA, Bell had not solely given Watson and Crick a significant foothold, however had additionally paved the best way for Rosalind Franklin, whose personal work on this subject was key in serving to Watson and Crick to resolve the construction of the genetic materials.
Franklin now has an award-winning portrayal by Nicole Kidman within the West Finish play Photograph 51, a Mars Rover named in her honour, and a brand new novel about her – she is fortunately not fairly the “darkish woman of DNA” she as soon as was. Maybe it’s now Florence Bell who actually deserves this title.
Watson and Crick took all of the glory, however there’s a forgotten hero of the double helix
The story of Florence Bell is instructed within the revised version of Kersten’s e book, The Man within the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Highway to the Double Helix, which shall be printed in paperback by Oxford College Press in March 2022.