|King's Biophysics Department Prospective (1962)|
In understanding the role of Maurice Wilkins and King’s in the discovery of the double helix it is necessary to explore the background of the Biophysics Research unit. This Medical Research Council (MRC) funded group was crucial in the discovery due to its unique status as the only interdisciplinary biophysics laboratory in the UK. Its self-consciously hybridised and almost dilettante approach to science bore fruit not just with the landmark discovery of DNA but also in regards to the pioneering muscle work of Jean Hanson and the research on collagen under J T Randall.
Biophysics in a Bombsite:
The Department owes its creation to the vision and direction of Sir Professor John Randall. He had been appointed Wheatstone Professor of Physics at King’s in 1946 and part of his initiative was to have a separate biophysics department alongside the existing Physics department. It was Randall’s fantastic aptitude to wheel and deal that secured government funding for the unit through the Medical Research Council in 1946. This was shortly followed by Rockefeller Foundation granting funds for special apparatus such as electron microscopes and X-ray diffraction apparatus. Whilst money was not a problem the physical devastation of the Second World War was.
|Construction work begins on re-building the Physics laboratories at the Strand Campus (1950)|
“In one room in 1948 I remember two physicists setting up reflecting ultraviolet microscopes with a technician grinding and polishing quartz coverslips, a physicist trying to construct a high voltage electron microscope for direct study of thin tissue culture cells, another physicist smashing cell nuclei in a blender to make ‘Mirshy chromosomes’ and a biological technician handling tissue cultures under the expert supervision of Honor Fell”.
This frantic inter-disciplined laboratory was not the only reason why it began to be referred to as “Randall’s Circus” in King’s corridors. The spirit of the lab was maintained by hilarious Christmas parties with irrelevant songs, dances and once an opera being performed that pointed out the absurdities of the lab and made everyone laugh. This was complemented by the annual summer cricket match where J T Randall would take centre stage with his solid batting displays.
The collaborative, congenial and diverse scientific skills of the biophysics unit helped advance science in several directions during this period. It should be remembered that the discovery of DNA was not down to a few individuals but a number of scientists from around the world.
|Christmas in a Biophysics Laboratory when you don't have enough decorations at hand- here J T Randall is depicted as Father Christmas whilst on his right hand side, Maurice Wilkins makes an angelic appearance (1960s)|