Bragging rights: Leeds University unveils tribute to ‘father’ of DNA

It is a forgotten story of medical discovery in a shed on the campus of Leeds University a century ago, which could bear fruit today in a vaccine for coronavirus.

The installation by artist Sara Barker on the side of Leeds University's new engineering building

Some thought the ideas propagated by William Henry Bragg were up the wall. As of today, they really are – sculpted on to the side of a new science development at his alma mater.

It was Bragg – to this day the only scholar to have shared a Nobel prize with his son – whose realisation that X-rays could be used for purposes other than examining broken bones paved the way for the discovery of DNA.

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He was already a scientist of renown when he was brought to Leeds from Adelaide University in Australia to continue his work – but some at the university appeared to have been sceptical that it would amount to much.

The installation by artist Sara Barker on the side of Leeds University's new engineering building

“If he thought he was going to be given state of the art facilities he was in for a shock,” said Dr Kersten Hall, a visiting fellow and science historian. “When he got here they put him up in what was what was little more than a temporary shed. He wrote that he and his son Lawrence had to sit there in the freezing cold.”

The sculpture which was unofficially unveiled yesterday on the engineering and physical sciences facility on Woodhouse Lane, to be known as the Sir William Henry Bragg Building, went some way to making amends.

Commissioned from the artist Sara Barker, the three-dimensional installation in welded aluminium is called The Worlds of If and incorporates the equation behind what is now known as Bragg’s Law. It unfolds as viewers walk around the building.

Ms Barker said her aim had been to produce “a curve ball that might activate or completely transform the work in different lighting”.

Dr Hall said it was about time the university and the city began shouting about its involvement with one of the pivotal discoveries of 20th century science – one that laid the foundations for 28 more Nobel prize-winning researchers.

The principal previous acknowledgment was a blue plaque outside the Parkinson Building on the centre of the campus, where Sir William Bragg was eventually professor of physics. It commemorates his development of the first X-ray spectrometer and his pioneering work on the analysis of crystal structures using X-rays.

“X-ray crystallography is just a gift that keeps giving,” said Dr Hall, who has written a book called Dark Satanic Mills to DNA.

“It was absolutely crucial to the discovery that DNA has the double helix shape which explains how it passes on genetic information from one generation to the next. It was this method the Braggs developed from which we learned the shape of the insulin molecule, helped to solve the structure of penicillin and may yet be able to work out the shape of the spiked protein on the surface of the coronavirus.

“It’s an inspiring story for Leeds, and I wish it banged the drum about it more than it does.

“I hope that as people walk down Woodhouse Lane and glance up and see this sculpture, they take inspiration from it.”

Sir Alan Langlands, the university’s vice-chancellor said the new building would house laboratories and teaching spaces and that its signature sculpture was “a vibrant reminder of the power of science in shaping modern society”.

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Thank you

James Mitchinson