Bill Astbury graduated from Cambridge with a Physics degree in 1921 and went to work as a researcher for Sir William Bragg in London. Bragg had previously been Cavendish professor of Physics at the University of Leeds and, with his son Lawrence, was awarded the Nobel prize for the invention of molecular structure determination by X-ray crystallography. This technique is based on passing an X-ray beam through a crystal of the sample of interest and, at the time, was limited to simple chemical compounds. Astbury, however, exposed fibres of much more complex protein molecules, such as hair, horn, tendon, silk, feather and muscle, to X-rays and showed that the diffraction patterns he obtained belonged to a limited number of classes. He labelled two major classes alpha and beta, that we now know to be major building blocks of complex protein structures, and even showed that transitions between them could be induced by mechanical stretching and relaxing. This transition between the alpha-helix and beta-strand forms is represented in the ACSMB logo.
He moved to the University of Leeds in 1928, becoming Professor of Biomolecular Structure in 1945 and remaining until his death in 1961. In 1938 he took the first fibre diffraction pictures of DNA, correctly predicting, in an article in the journal Nature, the overall dimensions of the molecule and that the nucleotide bases were stacked at intervals of 3.3Å perpendicular to its long axis. It was left, however, to Watson and Crick after the Second World War to elucidate the detailed double helical structure of DNA.
Astbury was a founding father of X-ray diffraction studies of biological macromolecules and, in 1961, coined a definition of the new field of molecular biology. The chair of biophysics at the University still bears his name, as does the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology and even the building where the current X-ray diffraction equipment is housed. The tradition he founded still flourishes and promises to underpin biological science in the coming century.