Pioneer of muscle contraction

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.
edited 54 Nature AUs.jpg
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.

Among the things I tell the students is that three of the people in the picture are still alive, these being, from left to right, Rolf Niedergerke, Sir Andrew Huxley, and Hugh Huxley.

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:
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“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.”

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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.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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11 Responses to Pioneer of muscle contraction

  1. steffi suhr says:

    Shouting down a Nobel Prize winner – wonderful! The confidence! Thanks for the story, Austin.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    You have quite a pedigree there, Austin. Would be fascinated to know what your dad made of his early PhD students. Maybe over a beer sometime?!

  3. Austin Elliott says:

    It’s a deal, Stephen.

    Not exactly about my father’s PhD students, but I did get him to write a historical piece on his early years diffracting x-rays off contracting muscle (early 60s) for Physiology News (sorry, large PDF). The article actually contains one notable misremembering… to find out what you also have to read the interesting follow-up letter (also PDF).

    PS Not sure about pedigree, but it has always been very clear that my dad is an infinitely better scientist than me…!

  4. Stephen Curry says:

    Cheers – I’ll check that out when I get off this train and its cursedly slow wifi…

  5. Maxine Clarke says:

    Lovely post, Austin. Sadly, I never met Jean Hanson but I would love to have done. I did a postdoc at Kings, and she was very fondly remembered there as the people in the muscle unit had all worked with her.

    One of them, Prof Arthur Elliott (no relation!) had a shelf full of PhD theses in his office, and I remember seeing your father’s there – though I never dared open any of them. I expect it is now gracing KCL library in its newer home.

  6. Gerald Elliott says:

    In the light of my son Austin’s comments on Jean Hanson, I thought I might add some personal reminiscences of her.

    In 1954 I was effectively Jean’s first graduate student at King’s after she had returned from FO Schmitt’s laboratory in Boston, where she introduced Hugh Huxley to the light microscope. It was not easy for her, trained as a classical biologist, to cope with a brash physics graduate like myself who had done no biology before. Luckily Jean was a superb teacher, and the biological conversion course that she ran at KCL with Sidnie Manton and James Sutcliffe was really excellent.

    Probably because of our different backgrounds we did not always agree (in parenthesis, I think that any graduate student who agrees with their supervisor on all points is probably in the wrong game!), but she was always totally courteous when agreeing to differ. She was also fiercely loyal to her colleagues. I remember that when I decided that I needed to supplement our electron-microscope observations of the paramyosin by building a two-dimensional small-angle X-ray diffraction camera, she fought my battle for the necessary resources with [unit head] JT Randall. Even after the ‘double-helix’ saga Randall still regarded the electron microscope as king. Jean also taught me how to write scientific papers, never allowing the least ambiguity in the experimental account or in its discussion.

    When I in turn returned from the USA (Carnegie Mellon and Woods Hole) in 1969, Jean offered me the hospitality of the KCL laboratory in my research role. This was incredibly important for me since the Open University, where I had been appointed Professor, had not yet built research laboratories. This happy arrangement continued until 1972, when I wished to institute a new research line, in the transparent front tissues of the eye, and Jean felt that this would take more laboratory space than she had available to offer.

    By this stage Jean and her colleagues were working on the finer points of the thin filament structural array in smooth and striated muscle, work she had pioneered with Jack Lowy before he moved to Aarhus. This project was cut short by her tragic early death; I have often pondered where it might have led her had she lived. In my opinion – though of course I am biased! – Jean had the most flexible mind of all those four early sliding filament pioneers. I sometimes wonder if she could perhaps have make great breakthroughs in a muscle field that has – at least in my view – sadly become rather stagnant.

    PS May I respond to Austin’s filial compliment by saying that I think he is quite outstanding in his ability to grasp the bones of any new aspect of science and to present it in a way that makes sense. I have myself often asked him for tutorials and have been delighted – apart from the paternal pride – by the clarity that he produces. It is a pity that in these days of brownie points and box ticking this sort of talent is not much valued by those in authority in our Universities; I do not doubt that Austin’s students appreciate it, though!

  7. Heather Etchevers says:

    His readers also appreciate it a great deal. Thanks, Austin, for this particular contribution to Ada Lovelace day!

  8. Austin Elliott says:

    Cheers, Heather.

    I have added a few biographical links to Gerald’s comment for anyone who is interested in the people he names. Links to more info about Hugh Huxley and JT Randall can be found in the original post.

    Gerald tells me that the Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Motility did a special feature issue on Jean Hanson and the sliding filament theory in 2004, again as a 50th anniversary celebration of the sliding filament theory, The special issue contents list can be found here.

    Finally, for links to an account of some of the later contracting muscle x-ray work at King’s in the early 60s – with some great pictures – see my earlier reply to Stephen C.

  9. Anona Blackwell says:

    I was an undergraduate student of Jeans (1967-70)and loved her as my academic “mother”. She was not only extremely intelligent but also a very caring tutor. I recall that when I got a II1 degree she called me into her office to “apologise” saying that in a normal year I would have got a first but one of my peers was exceptional.I was pleased with the degree I got and her comments were a sign of her sensitivity. After qualifying I decided to study medicine and Jean went to extreme lengths to get me a place at Westminster Medical school. I never forgot her loving nature and when I heard of her death from, I believe, Waterhouse Freidreichson syndrome I cried for 3 days. My intention was to get a medical degree and go back to her for a PhD . My own career was a mix of clinical medicine and research and I owe much of what I am to Jean. Over the years I have tried to emulate Jean I still feel great sadness at losing what I had hoped would become a friend in later years.

    Sleep well Jean you are not forgotten and your legacy lives on not only in your research but in the role model you were for me and I am sure for all those who knew you.God Bless .
    Anona Blackwell

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