Florence Bell: An unsung heroine of DNA

While many recall the work of Watson and Crick, Bell's name had been lost to history. Until now.
17 June 2022

Interview with 

Kersten Hall, University of Leeds


This is the story of a woman who was pivotal to the discovery of DNA. A name lost to time but is now started to be recognised for her pioneering work. Here to tell her tale is Kersten Hall, a science historian based at the University of Leeds, and Julia Ravey. This tale starts with a physicist called William Astbury, who was the star of Kersten’s 2014 book “The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix”. Astbury’s link to the DNA story came about in a somewhat unconventional way…

Kersten - He was using x-rays to try and work out the structure of the fibres in wool. Wool's been at the heart of the Leed's economy, and Astbury had come here in 1928 to use this new method of x-ray scattering to try and work out the molecular structure of wool fibres.

Julia - To do this Asbury wanted to study proteins; chains of amino acids, which form the building blocks and molecular machines powering our cells and everything around us.

Kersten - And what Asbury showed was that some proteins, these chains are folded up into very precise shapes, and that's what allows a protein to do its job. So hemoglobin can bind oxygen, because its molecular necklace, if you like, is folded up into a precise shape. So Astbury's taken these proteins from seeds, and he'd found that with a certain chemical treatment, through like an active molecular origami, you could unravel their protein chains and refold them. And he had this idea that maybe that would provide the ideal substitute for wool in the textile industry.

Julia - This discovery led to the production of Ardil; a material derived from unfolding proteins from peanuts, which could be used as a wool alternative.

Kersten - And that really put him on the map internationally. It established him as the authority in using x-rays to work out the structure of large biological molecules. And so as a result of that, he was sent a sample of some DNA.

Julia - But Asbury didn't work alone on this project.

Kersten - He put his research assistant Florence Bell to work on them. Now for my money, Florence Bell is the unsung heroin of the DNA story.

Julia - If you've heard the DNA story, you'll probably thinking, hang on, that title goes to Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who use x-rays to unravel the structure of DNA, crucial to Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix. For a long time, Franklin's pivotal role in this finding was neglected. But now we tell her story widely and she's even had a Mars Rover named after her. So regarding an unsung hero now...

Kersten - I think the times come for that mantle to pass to Asbury's research assistant Florence Bell, who 13 years before Rosalind Franklin, so 1938, Bell took the very first x-ray images of the DNA structure

Julia - From this image, Bell and Astbury came up with a model structure for DNA.

Kersten - You know, they got quite a few things wrong about that model, but they also got some important things right

Julia - Like the spaces between the bases which make up the DNA ladder, an observation that provided Watson and Crick with a crucial foothold

Kersten - The most important thing Bell did was she showed that you could use this x-ray method - studying the scattering of x-rays - to reveal the regular ordered structure of DNA. And I think in that way, she very much laid the foundations for the later work of Rosalind Franklin, and of course James Watson and Francis Crick's success.

Julia - So what happened to Florence Bell?

Kersten - Just as the DNA work was picking up momentum, it was brought to an abrupt halt by events in the wider world, because of course the second world war broke out and in 1941, Bell was called up for war service. So she went into the women's auxiliary air force. William Asbury was gutted. He did not want to lose her. He wrote in desperation to the war office pleading saying she is just too valuable, I need her in my lab, but they weren't listening.

Julia - Bell ended up marrying a US serviceman and moved stateside.

Kersten - The trail just goes cold. I mean, she didn't leave much in the way of letters, historical sources anyway, but when she goes to the US, the paper trail just dies out. What we do know is she had quite a senior position as an industrial chemist, at a petroleum company in Texas. And then she gave her career up. She gave it up to look after four children who she adopted.

Julia - So why is it that Bell's story has been lost in time? Maybe in the 1930s, being a woman in science was just too much to comprehend.

Kersten - I came across this newspaper clipping that I think it took me about a good five minutes to recover from laughing after I'd seen it. It was from 1939; so this is a year after Bell's done the work on DNA and Asbury thought really highly of her, he really valued her intellect and her ability. So much so that when the Institute of Physics held this conference in Leeds in 1939, Asbury got Bell to present the work of his lab, and the local newspapers of the day reported on it. The headline that they ran just says, "Woman scientist explains." And there's this implicit sense of shock. Like it sounds as if they think they've just discovered some zoological specimen previously unknown to science, you know, this sense of being stunned.

Julia - Finally though, Bell's story is being told and hopefully she's starting to get the recognition she deserves...

Kersten - But she has got a seminar room named after her, in the new Brag building, which houses the school of physics and astronomy at the university Leeds here. And we just had the official opening of that building this week. So she's got a seminar room, as I say, not a Mars Rover, but it's a start. Baby steps.


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