In The Myth of Basic Science Matt Ridley writes:

The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

Is that an accurate description of the history? Did the technology of X-ray crystallography of biological molecules mostly get developed by the wool industry for commercial purposes or was it developed by academic scientists?

  • 4
    The word "sequencing" in the title isn't appropriate. X-ray crystallography was used to find the generic structure of DNA, but sequencing wasn't accomplished until much later and did not involve X-ray crystallography. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2094077
    – DavePhD
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:03

2 Answers 2


Ridley is cherry-picking to an enormous extent, such that even if his statements are technically true they are without meaning.

Analysis of fibrous materials using X-ray crystallography did indeed contribute to the study of DNA structure, and the techniques may well have been used in the wool industry. However those studies themselves were dependent on earlier work, including the X-ray crystallography of crystals. There were also studies of other inorganic materials, the theoretical development of X-ray crystallography, and the study of non-fibrous organic molecules (such as cholestrol, penicillin and vitamin B12), none of which are in any way related to the wool industry. These are in turn dependent on basic studies of refraction, such as the development of Bragg's Law. Use of X-rays in the textile industry was dependent on the basic science contributed by Scherrer, Herzog and Jancke. All of these contributed to the analysis of DNA, yet Ridley chooses not to mention them for reasons of his own.


  • It seems that the work referred to was that of William Astbury at Leeds University. So, even the claim that it was developed in the wool industry is a tendentious one. Funded by it, perhaps.
    – richardb
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 21:29

Short answer, this statement has a few facts in it, but they are out of order, and misrepresent the history around the work, as well as where the money was coming from. In my mind, the misrepresentations are bad enough for the statement made by Matt Ridley to be completely false.

The discovery of DNA occurred in 1860, and was due to testing solutions with acids and bases, dissolving out the DNA and re-precipitating it. The man credited with this discovery is Johann Friedrich Miescher. This is important because this work happens before the discovery of X-Ray crystallography in 1912, , by Max Laue, Walter Friedrich, and Paul Knipping

For many years, DNA was considered by some to be waste product stored in the cell, thought to be obviously toxic to the rest of the cell due to the presences of a protective nucleus. In 1881, Albrecht Kossel looked at DNA closely and gave it it's current name, as well as isolating the base pairs that contain the information within a DNA molecule. His work meshed well with the work of of Gregor Mendel in the early 1860's but there were still lots of "dots not yet connected". This is important because this work happens before the discovery of X-Ray crystallography in 1912.

William Astbury, a pioneer in taking X-ray crystallography photos, did take a X-ray crystallography photo of DNA in the early 1930's, but he didn't discover much. He was looking for patterns in "long things" and his work covered a lot of "long molecules" including DNA, wool, other biological fibers, muscle, and bacteria flagella. His work contained many errors, and his success was mostly on the protein side of things, not in DNA.

Astbury's work was groundbreaking, but it wasn't perfect. His calculations sometimes had multiple atoms in the same space, an impossibility known to be impossible in his day. It was mostly the work of H. S. Taylor and Maurice Huggins that did further research showing that Astbury's repeating parts of proteins were coils, with atomic resolution (later to be name alpha-helixes) in 1943. Neither scientist seems to be funded by "Wool" as they were working at Universities (Princeton and Berkley, respectively). Oddly enough, Astbury did publish his work on DNA in 1938, but the description of the molecule was "a pile of pennies" (X-Ray Study of Thymonucleic Acid. Nature. 141 (3573): 747-748).

For the final step, Watson and Crick leveraged a number of techniques, including X-Ray crystallography in the early 1950's (1953?) to describe DNA structure. Unlike Astbury, they were primarily interested in DNA, and didn't focus on proteins (which were mostly "discovered" by then).

In short, Matt Ridley's argument is tenuous at best, and probably very false. Work on wool led to an interesting discovery, but not all at once. That work didn't really trigger the discovery of DNA's structure, even though one of the researchers took the right photograph nearly 20 years earlier than Watson and Crick.

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    Who knew that my years of being a genetic engineer with a PI that made us read original sources would pay off!
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 0:10
  • "Gregor Mendel in the early 1990's" - This year number cannot be right. I don't know which year you meant though. Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 12:23
  • @SebastianRedl Thanks for catching the typo, It is a lot closer to 1860's
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 13:35

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