Raymond Gosling on Becoming a Scientist: Working at Kings’ College
  Raymond Gosling     Biography    
Recorded: 03 Mar 2003

Oh, I wanted to do medicine. And my father said, “No, we can’t afford for you to do medicine. It’s too long a course.” Six years or what. So I had to make another choice. As usual as it happens to most of us, I think you’re influenced by the masters at your school and we happened to have a very good master called Dr. Clark who was enthusiastic. And that’s the great thing that I remember in those days that teachers in schools were well qualified and they were very enthusiastic and they thought their subject was fun. And so I did a first degree in physics, but I always hankered after the biological aspects. And I heard that there was this wonderful man called [J.T.] Randall who—I was the University College at London which is, of course, the foundation college for the university and is known as the godless college. It was created by a philosopher called Jeremy Bentham to give access to university education to women and to people of any religious persuasion. At the time Oxford and Cambridge had religious debts.

Now down the—a little while away, a half mile away in the Strand, the establishment, the religious establishment of England, the Church of England set up a college directly to balance this godless college in Guyer Street and they called it King’s College, London. And these two were the founders of the University of London. And Randall had just been given the Wheatstone Chair of Physics. And they had a great tradition. For example, Maxwell, the man who discovered electromagnetic radiation or wrote the equations for it was the professor there. So there’d been a number of Nobel Prize winners there in physics. And I wanted to get into Randall’s lab because he was doing this strange new animal called biophysics. And I waited for two years before—and I bothered him—before he would take me on board to do a Ph.D. And I worked as a hospital physicist in those two years. And so I happened to be in Randall’s lab and I—my first job there was—the old man knew that ram sperm had a flat head, not like our tadpole shaped sperm and therefore if the transforming principle that enabled cells to reproduce was in that head there’d be rods at right angles to the flatness of the sperm head.

So he gave little Raymond the job of taking ram sperm and getting them to lie down side-by-side and flat. Well, you can imagine how tricky that was. And I had about six different ways of trying to do that. The idea was I’d get a lot of them flat and then I’d stand the flat sheet or I would shine the X rays through and I’d get the X-ray diffraction pattern of the stuff inside. But I was getting nowhere and then I heard that Maurice Wilkins had been given some very pure DNA from—a very high molecular weight—from a chap called [Rudolf] Signer in Switzerland and I went down to see him and begged him to let me try and create a specimen of pure DNA so that I’d have something to compare [and] use as a monitor to select which method was making the ram sperm flattest. And he showed me this material and he said that, “You look, Raymond. It’s—it pulls fibers.” And so we thought that would be a good idea. And he pulled the fibers and I had a paper clip and I wound the fibers round the paperclip and then I glued them with quick setting cement that I bought from Woolworth’s down the road in Strand and pulled the clip apart to tension them. Then I took that over to the chemistry department where we had an old X-ray diffraction tube and the rest, as they say, is history.

I can remember bubbling hydrogen through the—into the camera which was necessary because otherwise the air in the camera would fog the film because you had to leave specimen so weakly diffracting, you had to leave the specimen in the beam for ten hours or so. And I did the first time and it was very disappointing cause you just got a black mess. And then J.T. Randall said, “Oh, you stupid boy. You need to put hydrogen in to displace all the air.” Well, that worried me a bit, you see, because I was only allowed to use this tube after hours and it was in the basement of the chemistry department which was about, which was on the embankment of the Thames and was about three floors below. And I was just a little bit worried because I couldn’t help remembering what happened to Zeppelins who were full of hydrogen. And I didn’t really want to blow myself up and the rest of the college. So I bottled the hydrogen through water. Now that was a serendipitous thing because it happened to produce 74-75 percent humidity which is just the right humidity for the crystalline “A” form. But we didn’t know Maurice and I then—didn’t know that there were “A” and “B” forms. We’d only knew what was in the literature from [William] Astbury before the war that you could get fiber diagrams. But of course they were all mixtures of “A” and “B” and no wonder they were different to work out. And then if I had a Eureka! Moment, and Jim talks about his Eureka! moment—for him it was when they put the base pairs together and they clicked. And they ran down to the Eagle pub saying, “The beers on me, guys!”

Well, my Eureka! moment was alone in the darkroom under the—below the level of the Thames when in the developer dish there appeared slowly, you know as it does when you’re developing, all these spots. And I didn’t run but I certainly walked very quickly back to Uncle Maurice and showed him this thing. And he, usually very reserved, very shy, he was as excited as I was. And few weeks after that he went to Naples and showed it off proudly. And that’s when Jim saw and Jim realized and I think, I suppose that the boss of the lab here will tell you whether if this right or not, but I think he did try to or did approach Wilkins to come work in Kings. And I don’t quite know why that didn’t happen. I’ve often thought, I’d love to know and I’ve never asked Jim actually. But apocryphally I think he chose to go to the Cavendish. Of course, I mean, I can’t understand if he did offer his help, in those days good help was hard to find, as they say. And Jim had this wonderful scholarship so he self supporting. And any—as I’ve discovered when I ended up running my own research, you look twice if not three times before you turn away somebody with their own support. But it happened that way. It’s fun to think what would have happened if he had come to Kings, isn’t it?

Raymond Gosling arrived at King’s lab in 1949 to work as a research student. Under the direction of Rosalind Franklin, he helped to perfect the technique of x-ray diffraction photography to obtain the A and B form images of DNA. Gosling met Watson when he arrived in Wilkins’s lab to review DNA diffraction images.

After completing his Ph.D., Gosling left King’s to teach physics at Queens’ College in Cambridge, at the University of St. Andrews, and at the University of the West Indies. He returned to the UK in 1967 to become professor and eventually emeritus professor in Physics Applied to Medicine at the Guy’s Hospital Medical School.

Raymond Gosling has dedicated much of his time researching the elasticity of the arterial system in order to develop tests to monitor one’s risk of stroke and heart attack.

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