William Thomas Astbury studied the structures of fibrous materials, including fabrics, proteins, and deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in England during the twentieth century. Astbury employed X-ray crystallography, a technique in which scientists use X-rays to learn about the molecular structures of materials. Astbury worked at a time when scientists had not yet identified DNA’s structure or function in genes, the genetic components responsible for how organisms develop and reproduce. He was one of the first scientists to use X-ray crystallography to study the structure of DNA. According to historians, Astbury helped establish the field of molecular biology as he connected microscopic changes in the structure of materials to changes in their large-scale properties. Astbury and his images helped scientists to understand the structure of DNA and its role in genetics.
In February 1953, Linus Pauling and Robert Brainard Corey, two scientists working at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, proposed a structure for deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in their article “A Proposed Structure for the Nucleic Acids,” henceforth “Nucleic Acids.” In the article, Pauling and Corey suggest a model for nucleic acids, including DNA, that consisted of three nucleic acid strands wound together in a triple helix. “Nucleic Acids” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shortly after scientists came to the consensus that genes, the biological factors that control how organisms develop, contained DNA. Though scientists proved Pauling and Corey’s model incorrect, “Nucleic Acids” helped scientists understand DNA’s structure and function as genetic material.