My own small contribution to Ada Lovelace Day…
Students tend to think that discoveries underpinning what they get taught in first year lectures were made long, long ago, by ancient scientists long-dead.
Of course, this is not true in “young” disciplines. Some of the founders of molecular biology are still with us, for instance. And though now fairly old, they are not all much older than me than I am older than my students (if you see what I mean).
The “long-dead discoverers” is also not necessarily true in what one might think of as older (“more mature”?) disciplines like physiology/biophysics.
Here is a picture I show to first and second year undergraduate students when I teach them muscle contraction. It is culled from the cover of Nature a few years ago (2004), and appeared as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, published in two back-to-back papers in Nature in 1954. You can find more on this here.
The only one not around is Jean Hanson, at the bottom right. Hanson, born in 1919 in Derbyshire and a graduate of Bedford College London, worked at the MRC Biophysics Unit at King’s College, founded after WW2 by the physicist John Randall. She became Professor of Biology at the University of London in 1966, was elected FRS in 1967 and ultimately succeeded Randall as head of the unit in 1970. Tragically, she died in 1973 after contracting meningitis. She was only 54.
The sliding filament theory is a landmark in biology, hence the Nature 50th Anniversary coverage (including a perspective by a certain Maxine Clark, which is here if you are a Nature subscriber).
As with many things that reach the textbooks, it is perhaps not remembered so much now that, like any new theory, the sliding filament hypothesis, and the implied co-ordinated macromolecular motion, took a while to get accepted. Here is one account featuring Hanson:
“When Jean Hanson spoke at the Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology held at Leeds in September 1954, William Astbury and other physicists were all negative about the concept of the directional movement of filaments. Even in the early 1960s when a symposium of biomacromolecules was held in Pittsburgh, PA, most physical chemists including Paul Flory (1910-1985; Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1974) strongly objected to the directionality of the filament movement. The writer still remembers Jean Hanson shouting: “I know I cannot explain the mechanism yet, but the sliding is a fact.”“
Coming back to the picture of the four sliding filament pioneers: Jean Hanson was also my father’s PhD supervisor. So I get to tell the students that I have actually met all four of the people in the picture. My father always says he owed a great deal to Jean Hanson’s teaching and friendship. I don’t know if it was her influence, but a lot of the people who worked in my father’s laboratory and who he helped train over the years were female, including his first ever postdoc, Ada Yonath, and his first PhD student after he became Professor at the Open University, Julia Goodfellow.
Sadly, Jean Hanson’s early death, and the (slightly surprising) fact that no Nobel Prize has ever been awarded for the sliding filament theory, means that she is less well known that other women biophysics pioneers of the early post-war era, such as Rosalind Franklin (who of course also died tragically young) and Dorothy Hodgkin. However, you can read more about Hanson’s life and work on a section of the King’s College London archives website here.