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News archive 2004

Who was Jean Hanson?

21 May 2004

As the world gets in shape for this summer’s Athens Olympics, King’s College London will mark the 50th anniversary of two seminal Nature papers describing how muscles work, with a two-day conference celebrating both this discovery and presenting current research in the field.

The conference is taking place at King’s College London 20-21 May, 2004 and is part of a week long celebration of the research, including a two day symposium at the Royal Society at the beginning of the week (17-18 May, 2004). The anniversary of publication is Saturday 22 May, 2004.

Since Ancient Greek times people have been interested in muscle mechanism, and in the early 1950s Jean Hanson started to break muscle cells down into smaller units, myofibrils, and to observe them using a new microscopy technique allowing her to see the different bands of tissue and their changes as the muscle contracted.

On May 22 1954 her research was published in one of two papers describing the structure of muscles and what happens when they contract, which revolutionised the field of research.

Jean Hanson worked in the now famous Randall Biophysics Unit at King’s, alongside Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin and when JT Randall retired in 1970 the department was divided in two and co-directed by her and Wilkins.

In his autobiography, The Third Man of DNA, Wilkins cites her work as an example of open-mindedness in science, contrasting her collaborations with the rivalry between the King’s and Cambridge laboratories over the DNA structure. He says: Examples of secrecy in science as shown in the DNA Double Helix research, show how important it is for humans to develop mutual understanding and the ability for open discussion.’

Tragically Jean Hanson died unexpectedly in August 1973 from meningococcal septicaemia. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1967.
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