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Behind the picture: Rosalind Franklin and the polio model

Retro light fitting or model of a virus? In the latest of our looks at the story behind an image from the MRC archive, Ellen Charman finds out how this collection of giant ping pong balls is linked to Rosalind Franklin’s less well-known research understanding the structure of viruses.

John Ernest and his poliovirus structure (Copyright: LMB Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

John Ernest and his poliovirus structure (Copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)

This image, taken at Birkbeck College in 1958, shows the sculptor John Ernest dwarfed by one of his models of the poliovirus, which is seemingly made from giant pingpong balls.

The five-foot model, together with one of the tobacco mosaic virus, was exhibited at the International Science Pavilion of the Brussels’ World Exhibition in 1958, the first major World’s Fair after World War 2. Earlier versions had indeed been made out of ping pong balls and plastic bicycle handlebar grips.

The model was based on Rosalind Franklin’s work at Birkbeck determining the structure of the virus. She used a crystallised form of poliovirus to study its structure using x-ray diffraction, the same technique she used to study DNA.

The crystals had been produced by Dr Carlton Schwerdt at the University of California in Berkeley. John Finch, who was Rosalind’s PhD student at the time and took this photo, recounts that Dr Schwerdt’s wife carried the first crystal samples into England, accompanied only by a ‘to whom it may concern’ letter explaining the nature and destination of the material.

Rosalind had suggested not attempting to obtain the approval of British customs in advance and so it was no surprise when Mrs Schwerdt was stopped by a customs officer who told her “Lady, you can’t bring poliovirus into England!” Fortunately, he let her pass when it was explained that the virus was in a crystalline form.

After Dr Franklin’s untimely death from ovarian cancer in April 1958, Aaron Klug took over the leadership of her group. He and John Finch continued her work, culminating in a Nature paper published in 1959, which they dedicated to her memory.

Ellen Charman

More photos of the virus models can be found in the MRC LMB archive.

 

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